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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Flying the Mississippi: Introduction

From the book-in-progress, Flying the Mississippi.

Introduction


This is the sort of flight I'd want to take, so I'm simply writing the kind of book that I'd want to read. That's why the flight plan is pretty close to something you could use to make a real-life flight: it actually comes right from the preliminary planning I do when preparing for a journey like this. It is the prequel to an even larger book: one which goes all the way around the world in FSX. No avgas to buy, no hotel rooms to pay for, no hours ticking on the Hobbs meter: just get in the virtual plane and have a blast!

There are several books on the market already that use FSX as a “training tool”. The problem with most of them it that they tend to be more like dry, dusty workbooks than useful, enjoyable tools. With the exception of “FSX for Pilots: Real World Training” by Jeff van West and Kevin Lane-Cummings, which is one of the few enjoyable textbook-style books that doesn't treat FSX as the redheaded stepchild of aviation, most of these focus too much on drill and repetition of isolated skills.

A recent trend in training is “Scenario-Based Training” (SBT). This is a promising concept, as instead of isolating a specific skill or maneuver and then practicing that without context, SBT's goal is to package many factors and skills together and place them in a scenario that reflects more closely the kind of situations a pilot may face in real life.

However, even the books that follow the trendy scenario model of training tend to lack imagination. Not here. Instead of a bunch of variations on “To grandmother's house we go” flights, you'll be flying the ultimate scenario: an immense voyage down one of the world's longest rivers. You'll see more of the Mississippi than Lewis and Clark did, you'll face serious challenges that will test your piloting skills to the limit (and possibly beyond), and by the time you're done you'll be able to boast of having accomplished something few people ever have.

This book takes an entirely different approach than almost any of the ones out there today. Instead of lecturing you about everything you'll ever need to know and lots you won't before you ever get to touch the controls, you'll learn by having fun. My goal is that you'll be too busy having fun to realize you're learning. No one remembers a dull lecture, but everyone remembers that one time they did such-and-such. This book is just a string of such-and-such.

I assume only a basic familiarity with whatever flight simulator you choose to use. There are many references to Microsoft Flight Simulator X, but only because that is the flight simulator with the largest installation base. It would be impossible to write one with such specific references for all of the major flight simulators on the market today. However, I have put effort into ensuring that it is just as possible to do this flight in any of the others with minor adjustments. For example, I reference the FSX GPS, but your flight simulator will almost definitely have a GPS of its own. The commands to make it do certain things may vary slightly, but they probably do the same basic things.

You should know the basics of how to fly whatever flight simulator you choose, but you don't need to be an expert at all. As long as you know how to go up/down, left/right, and can land on a mile of runway, you have all the skills you need. The goal is that by the end of the book, you'll be a great pilot. If you're already a pilot, this journey should make you even better.

Hernando de Soto "discovering" the Mississippi River. Image from Wikipedia.

This isn't just a trip of 1500 miles. It is a trip through time, both on a human scale and a geologic scale. The Mississippi is a dynamic, living creature, and just as people have whims and layers of history of their own, so does the river.

It is alive on a daily basis, as barges push up and down the waters. It lives on a yearly basis in its floods, which after decades and decades of engineering are much tamer than they used to be, but still not entirely eliminated. It lives on a millennial scale in the layers of sediments that are a mix of new material deposited through its innumerable floods and old layers that date back millions of years to when it was an enormous bay.

Along the way, you'll encounter some of the human history that has taken place along its banks, and see how the laws of man are no match for the moods of the Mississippi. If you've ever wondered why rivers are so winding instead of taking the simpler, straighter route, you'll finally have your answer, and you'll see the traces left over that are evidence that rivers really do take the straighter course at times.

You'll also discover that river banks and airplane wings have something in common, and the Mississippi has had an impact on aviation in its own way. The travelers on the first steamboat to traverse the Mississippi, the New Orleans, were nervous by the high speed of the new boat: 8-10 miles per hour! You will go over ten times that fast as you travel along the river where the only thing constant is change.

See the table of contents for the rest of the book.

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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 ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, 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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Flying the Mississippi: Table of Contents

Flying the Mississippi posts

If it has a hyperlink, then that chapter been published. If it doesn't, then it's coming soon.

An exciting announcement!: A description of what the book will be like, who it's for, and all the fun stuff that will be in it.

Introduction: Many non-fiction books have introductions. This one does, too.

Tips for flying this adventure: How to get the most out of the lessons, legs, and flight simulator.

Chapter 1: Leg 1: Sky Manor (MN86) to Bemidji Regional (KBJI)



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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 ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, 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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An exciting announcement!

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where whoever wants to can try to write a 50,000-word novel in just one month. Many try, but only a few succeed, in large part because 50,000 words is an extremely daunting goal. (By comparison, this entire blog is "only" about 190,000 words, and I've been writing it for over five years.)

I won't be writing a novel, but I'll still be taking part in my own way. For the last several years, I've been writing a book called Flying the Mississippi. It has been a work in progress for quite a while now, as my real flying job, the return to school for graduate work, beating the 100 Workout Challenge, self-experimenting with learning research by attempting to master chess, the hours of work per month into this blog, and occasionally getting to spend an hour or two with the wife and dog has left little time to take it from the rough draft that it is to the polished, high-quality work it would have to be for me to admit to having anything to do with it.

It is a "learn by doing" book. In it, we fly together from the very start of the Mighty Mississippi at Lake Itasca all the way down to its unofficial end in New Orleans. Along the way, each leg has either a lesson in flying technique and/or the history and geology of the river. Everything from steamboat stories to short field landings is thrown in.

As you watch one of the most powerful rivers in the world grow from a small creek to a mile-wide monster, you'll fly over
  • Paul Bunyan country
  • Charles Lindbergh's hometown and land at the airport that bears his name
  • Maiden's Rock, the site of an old Native American legend of unlucky lovers
  • the "battlefield" of a war you probably didn't learn about in history class: the "Honey War"
  • Mark Twain's childhood home
  • an airport owned by the Busch family, makers of Budweiser
  • the beginning of the historic Lewis & Clark Expedition
  • the site of the most powerful earthquake in US history, which was so powerful the river "ran backward" for a time
  • an odd bit of geography where Kentucky isn't surrounded by more Kentucky
  • an old pirate lair
  • a pyramid that isn't in Egypt
  • the birthplace of blues and jazz and the home of Elvis
  • the alleged burial site of Hernando de Soto, the explorer who was on the old $500 bill
  • the location of Charles Lindbergh's first night flight
  • Vicksburg, which played a major role in the Civil War
  • the tallest capitol in the country
  • the home of Mardi Gras

Along the way, you'll learn and/or perfect short and soft field landings and all forms of navigation from the old-fashioned or obsolete to the most modern: dead reckoning, pilotage, VORs, ADF, and GPS. You'll become a master at reading sectional charts, and even perhaps understand what that mysterious "magnetic variation" is all about.

You'll even experience an engine failure over a particularly-treacherous part of the Mississippi. I actually already turned this into a video a while back on the Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel:


This adventure takes place in Microsoft Flight Simulator X, and was designed to be flown with nothing more complicated than its stock Cessna 172 with a plain vanilla installation. I chose this aircraft because it requires no special installation of software or add-ons, so it will work even if you're an X-Plane or Prepar3d user. The 172 also lets you use it as a guide if you're lucky enough to take this trip in real life!

Starting this month until it's done, roughly every other post will be a chapter from the book! (It might be a while, since there are 66 legs.) You'll get to watch the work in progress and even make comments and/or suggestions before the final book is published!

I'll keep up a table of contents as the series progresses. The next post will be the book's introduction. See you there!


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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 ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, 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, October 25, 2017

Heroes on the Potomac

Twenty-seven years before there was Sully on the Hudson, there was Lenny on the Potomac.

On a cold, snowy January afternoon in 1982, afternoon traffic is struggling to get out of Washington, DC. Six inches of snow has fallen on the area and downtown is almost paralyzed. Washington National—which wouldn't be named after Reagan for another 16 years, since Reagan was only finishing his first year as President at the time—was barely functional.

In the icy mess, Air Florida Flight 90 reaches the end of a chain of weak links. Unbeknownst to the crew or anyone else, one of the deicing teams' fluid wasn't the proper mixture, so one of the 737's wings didn't get the protection from the bitter elements it was supposed to be getting. The crew had little experience in harsh winter conditions, since they worked for a Florida airline.

As they push the thrust levers forward, the final nail is pounded into their coffin: the iced-up engine probes relay false information about the power the engines are putting out, making them think they are at takeoff power when they are actually well below it. All of the holes in Reason's Swiss cheese model have lined up, and barely 90 seconds later, they crash into the 14th Street Bridge.
Diagram from the official NTSB report.

Only six people on board survive the impact. They would cling to the wreckage for over twenty minutes as a U.S. Park Police helicopter scrambles to locate them in the wintry weather. One of them would end up succumbing to the icy water and drown before they could be rescued. Three of them manage to fight off hypothermia just long enough to hold on to the rescue rope and be brought on the chopper.

"The other two survivors required hands-on rescue," the NTSB report noted. "[O]ne was pulled aboard the helicopter skid by the helicopter crewman, the other was rescued by a civilian bystander who swam out and pulled her ashore."

That civilian bystander was a man by the name of Lenny Skutnik. Shortly afterward, Ronald Reagan would give his first State of the Union address as President, and would mention him in it:
Just 2 weeks ago, in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest—the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. And we saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.
Yes, that is Nancy Reagan applauding for him.
(Screenshot from C-SPAN's video of the speech. His mention starts at 57:40.)
This Presidential mention would create a quasi-tradition of its own, as Reagan and some of the presidents to follow would at times single out a particular American as a representative of the best of the country. These people would be called "Lenny Skutniks", leading to one of the stranger titles for a Wikipedia page: the "List of Lenny Skutniks".

But he was not the only hero on the Potomac that deadly day. The person I mentioned above that drowned before they could be rescued was Arland D. Williams, Jr., who selflessly helped the other survivors get rescued first. In his honor, the 14th Street Bridge that was the scene of the crash and the heroism afterward would be renamed the Arland D. Williams Memorial Bridge three years later.

Next week, I have a HUGE announcement about a new series that will become a book! 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 ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, 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, October 18, 2017

The Weather Capital of the World

When you think of the weather capital of the world, what do you think of? Maybe the National Weather Service HQ in Silver Spring, MD? The Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma City? Maybe even the Met Office in England where weather forecasting itself was born?

Having already visited the NWS office in Cleveland, I went to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the city that calls itself "The Weather Capital of the World".
Although there actually was a "Groundhog Day Gale of 1976", which gives some tangential weather relation:
Image from Wikipedia.
That's not what their claim to Weather Capital of the World is based on, however. Instead, Punxsutawney is the site of the famous Groundhog Day event that goes all the way back to 1886. According to it, if Phil sees his shadow, there allegedly will be six more weeks of winter to come:

This goes back even further, and one of the forms of the legend is summed up in a short poem:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
I'm more inclined to believe the billion-dollar supercomputers that predict weather than I am a rodent, even one that has a place in weather lore. Although the flight benefits that come along with being an airline pilot mean the wife and I can go anywhere in the world we want to on vacation, the last thing I really want to do on vacation is get on yet another airline flight. So a large part the trip was just to enjoy a nice, unhurried, barely-scheduled drive through the fall foliage.

Besides, Groundhog Day is one of Shannon's favorite movies, and since it's her vacation too, I thought it would be fun for us to visit where it was set (even though it was actually filmed in Illinois) and—as Bill Murray's character put it in the movie—"to worship a rat":

That rat is Punxsutawney Phil, the guy whose shadow is supposed to foretell the end of winter. (Well, that's a picture of a picture of Phil.) However, the real guy actually is on display in the town square, and you can walk right up to his burrow and see him:

While you can't pet the real Phil, you can pet a likeness of him:

It is impossible not to come across him many times more, though, such as this groundhog in front of the McDonalds:

It wouldn't be the last one we came across, though. In fact, there are 32 different Phils scattered throughout town, each one with a different theme:

Clockwise from upper left, here are four of them:
  1. Weather prognosticator Phil next to his burrow in the town square
  2. Rural Phil, which celebrates the farming and Amish country that surrounds "Punxsy", as the locals call it
  3. Bagpiper Phil
  4. Coal miner Phil, which calls back to the area's former mining heritage
We stayed at the Barclay Bed & Breakfast, which is a quaint, pretty place right on the town square. It's run by a great lady by the name of Lisa, who makes a good breakfast and conversation, and is extremely helpful. (She even took the time to ship us the things we accidentally left there afterward.) I'd absolutely recommend staying there if you're in town, and I enjoyed her sense of humor with the menu, which my wife Shannon pretended to cook:


One of the interesting things we came across that wasn't a Phil statue was in a small park down by the creek, just a couple blocks from the town square. They have concrete chess tables, complete with concrete chairs:
While in the movie Groundhog Day, the action takes place in the town square, the actual "Does he see his shadow or not?" event takes place at Gobbler's Knob, a few minutes out of town.


Shannon politely knocked on Phil's door:
Not getting any response to her "knock knock" joke, I took the podium and then tried to wake him up:

On the way home, we stopped at Venango Regional Airport to have lunch at Primo Barone's, a decent Italian restaurant right on the field. I'd been there several times several times with students back in the instructing days, but always on cross-country flights for a touch-and-go without stopping. It would be nice to see more on-airport restaurants to make people more comfortable with visiting their local airport.

When we finally got back in Ohio, we came across this amazing view as we drove across Mosquito Lake:

That was on the way to Punderson State Park to walk along the boardwalk that extends out into the lake. We also discovered that it has an allegedly-haunted manor.


That's all for this week. Now it's back to the grind. Next week, I get in to the story of one of Wikipedia's stranger page names, the "List of Lenny Skutniks". 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 ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, 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, October 11, 2017

Off to see the groundhog!

I'm on vacation this week. With my travel benefits, I could go anywhere in the world.

Then again, since I spend day after day flying as my day job, the last thing I want to do on vacation is to fly somewhere. Instead, the wife and I will spend the week driving a 500-mile loop and checking out fall foliage.

In the middle of this trip, we'll spend a couple of days in the self-proclaimed "Weather Capital of the World" and pay a visit to the Grand Prognosticator himself: Punxatawney Phil.

Next week: pictures. 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 ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, 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, October 4, 2017

"Apparently we have caused quite a stir."

"Comrades," [Sergey Korolev, the Soviet Union's chief rocket designer] cried, rousing his sleepy colleagues. "You can't imagine what's happening. The whole world is talking about our little satellite. Apparently we have caused quite a stir."
—Matthew Brzezinski, Red Moon Rising, 199
Today (October 4) is the 60th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the world's first baby steps into space. To observe this anniversary, last week I read Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries That Ignited the Space Age. This is an impressively-written history that almost reads like a good novel rather than just dry facts.

One of the most interesting things about the book is that it doesn't just go "this happened, then this happened, then this happened, and so on." Brzezinski gets into the personalities driving this technological leap: the leaders Khrushchev vs. Eisenhower and their respective rocket scientists, Sergey Korolev vs. Werner von Braun; the head of the Army's ballistic missile research at Redstone vs. the Air Force and Navy's projects.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the Soviets actually didn't think much of it at the time. (The quotation at the beginning of this post is an expression of real surprise.) To them, it was just a way of demonstrating that they had the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead without using the huge fleet of bombers that the US had massed in the 1950s. However, the Western world went ballistic (OK, that's probably a bad pun). The US had felt relatively safe from nuclear attack until then, since our bombers were superior both in quality and quantity.

Sputnik shattered that complacency, and Brzezinski quotes the historian Asif A. Siddiqi: "With only a ball of metal, the Soviets had managed to achieve what they were unable to convey with decades of rhetoric." Ironically, it also had a bigger impact on advancing the US's technological development than it did on the Soviet Union's, since it awoke the sleeping dragon out of its post-WWII self-satisfaction and spurred it into a large research effort to catch up in the new, scary "missile gap".

The Soviet Union launched Laika the space dog only a month later to send the message that they could keep lobbing these things over our heads any time they wanted. At the time, no one realized that this was a bluff, since they had expended their last rocket on that stunt, but it was a huge kick in the rear for the US.

Many of the things we take for granted today and that seem like they have been around forever are actually direct descendants of the influence Sputnik had on us those tense months in late 1957: the federal student loan program was created in 1958 to encourage Americans to go to college to study math and engineering; the Internet you're reading this on was developed by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was a small government agency before then and was increased immensely in size the year after Sputnik, and the satellites of our own that we rely on for GPS navigation and weather forecasting.

As a pilot, I used satellite technology twice just today on the job: I shot a GPS approach into Albany and used ACARS (a satellite-based communications system) to communicate with dispatch. Since I'm based at Washington-Dulles, I have another little reminder of Sputnik every day at work: the airport is named after John Foster Dulles, who was Eisenhower's Secretary of State when it was launched, and is a major character in the book.

As the Soviet Union developed surface-to-air missile technology that made the US's U-2 spy plane vulnerable and obsolete, the CIA pushed for a satellite program of our own even before Sputnik. At the time, they thought this wouldn't be possible until the mid-to-late 1970s. Once Sputnik was launched, this was pushed forward all the way up to 1959, almost two decades ahead of schedule!

Weather satellites that pilots and airline operations centers use every hour of the day are a direct civilian relative of these early spy satellites: after all, if you can create a satellite that can take detailed pictures of military targets on the ground, you can easily create one that can take pictures of the large-scale weather fronts that are responsible for hurricanes, blizzards, and thunderstorms, and so on.

Today, we can flick on the cable TV (usually delivered to the cable provider by satellite and then piped to your house by a cable) and watch the Weather Channel show the latest hurricane path predictions, whose impressive accuracy is only possible due to the constellation of weather satellites in orbit. The Delta rescue flight into Hurricane Irma last month wouldn't have been possible without satellite data. You can thank a little 134-pound aluminum beachball that was launched 60 years ago yesterday for over 80% of the weather forecasting you probably take for granted today.

Brzezinski even has a humorous bit about the aftermath of the first Vanguard rocket, our counterpunch to take on the Rooskies, embarrassingly blowing up on the pad on world-wide TV:
Hope had been dashed, Vanguard Fries had been stricken from the nation's menus, replaced by Sputnik Cocktails—one part vodka, two parts sour grapes—and the vengeful media, having angrily crowned Vanguard "our worst humiliation since Custer's last stand," were searching for scapegoats. Already, the Glenn L. Martin Company, Vanguard's general contractor, had been punished. Its stock had taken such a beating that it had been forced to suspend trading. [242]
 
Time Magazine would eloquently sum up this historic year in its end-of-the-year issue:
The symbols of 1957 were two pale, clear streaks of light that slashed across the world's night skies and a Vanguard rocket toppling into a roiling mass of flame on a Florida beach.... On any score 1957 was a year of retreat and disarray for the West. In 1957, under the orbits of a horned sphere and a half-ton tomb for a dead dog, the world's balance of power lurched and swung toward the free world's enemies. Unquestionably, in the deadly give and take of the cold war, the high score of the year belongs to Russia. And, unquestionably, the Man of the Year was Russia's stubby and bald, garrulous and brilliant ruler: Nikita Khrushchev. [257]

If you like cold war history, politics, and/or space, you'll probably like Red Moon Rising. 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 ERJ-145 and DHC-8 type ratings, 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.