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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Being an Airline Pilot, 6 months in: Donuts in the sky

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Remember the scene in the movie Pushing Tin where the New York controllers are acting certifiably insane, spitting out terse instructions at a mile a minute, and doing a bunch of other nutty things that would get them locked up in the non-aviation world?

Oh, wait: that was the plot of the entire movie. And on the other side of an overcaffeinated controller's microphone is the headset of the pilot who has to fly those commands.

I'd never be able to fly the old 172 into Newark at noon, but it's an everyday thing for me now as a Dash driver. Even after all the times I've done it, I still get a bit of a thrill out of the crazy dance NY Approach makes up to wiggle everybody in there at once. They whip up a fresh batch of nuttiness every time, and always seem to throw into the airplane jambalaya a Boeing 767 to follow on the way in—and as the FO I'm almost always the one flying the "ins". On the days I don't end up behind a seven-six, it's an A380 instead: the plane that's so big that it doesn't look like it should fly; a 600-ton, half-billion dollar bumblebee that could seat every single person in my old high school and still have seats left over.

It's just another day in the Newark stew, and that's what the "stay above the heavy's flight path" thing you memorized for the test and promptly jettisoned from the memory banks way back in the old ground school days was babbling about. I hardly ever used that in the old days, but it seems like I use that 80% of the time in Newark. I'm not sure I could fly an ILS into EWR without staying half-a-dot high now.

In fact, one day we were maintenance delayed departing for EWR, so we arrived an an off-peak time. Since it was slower than normal—which in New York airspace means there are only a million planes instead of a full bazillion—we weren't assigned the usual "Speed 190 to BUZZD/DOOIN" that we always get, and it got me off my game. I'm so used to having to scream in until 5 miles out, then chop the power and push the props up to slow down enough to drop the gear and flaps that I'm better at that than I am at the textbook-prescribed profile now. Imagine keeping your 172 doing 120 until 2 miles out and you'll get a feel for what it's like every day there. (Of course, some people do that anyway.)

I had a line check in January on a Rochester-Newark leg. (One of the nice things about getting your private certificate is that you never have to take a checkride again if you don't want to. We get them twice a year.) The first half of the flight was as uneventful as the second half wasn't.

That day they told us to expect holding, which isn't unusual going into any of the big 3 NYC airports (Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia). However, on this flight every time we were coming up on the holding fix we were given they'd change their mind and just give us a delay vector (a turn away from the airport) instead. This happened over and over again. All the while we're getting closer and closer to our divert fuel, which due to the weather that day was a pretty high number. Finally on the third time they tell us to proceed to a fix and hold, with not much time before we got there.

Unlike when I went into Newark for the very first time, I was ready and waiting for them to throw their best pitch at me. They tried hard to beat me, but since I was waiting for their fastball, I had the holding pattern entered into the FMS (even if just barely in time) and was ready to hit "Arm hold". Seconds before we got there, they told us, "Fly heading 160. Expect ILS 22L." So all three of us gave a big sigh of relief, because we calculated that we only had 10 minutes of holding fuel available. As we're going in, we get "Fly heading 070, vectors for resequencing." Oh no! It looks like I'm going to have to divert for the first time ever and on my first line check!

After a short while, we thankfully get, "Proceed direct Teterboro. Best forward speed." Things went uneventfully after that, even though some of our autopilots are worse than instrument students at intercepting courses, which explains the slight wiggle (the "Honeywell shuffle") after the last sharp turn in the picture below. We ended up landing with less than 100 pounds over our divert fuel: what a day for a line check.

Even the check airman (who's been there about a decade) remarked that that was one of the craziest things he's ever seen, but we handled it very well. Pretty good for a rookie FO who hasn't done a line check before. Sure, our LOFTs (Line Oriented Flight Training: basically a simulated regular turn on the line with some twists and failures thrown in for fun and training) and recurrent scenarios aren't all that different, except it's totally different because you're on the ground in a sim without a plane full of pax behind you.

Here's what that excitement looked like from above. The flight starts at the upper left and goes to the bottom right. All that's missing is the Yakety Sax music:

Screenshot from
With the next post, the Becoming an Airline Pilot series draws to a close. Next week, I'll wrap it up with a buffet of short observations and anecdotes of life on the line having people's lives on the line.

See the series index.

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 FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. 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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Being an Airline Pilot, Week 10: We're all counting on you

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In back, no one knows you're a rookie. After all, the months and months of training and evaluation you undergo to get signed off to sit up front is designed precisely to ensure that by the time you're in that seat, you have what it takes to take dozens and dozens of people and millions of dollars of airliner to where they're supposed to be.

But no one said it was going to be easy.

Human resources interviews almost always have the infamous TMAAT questions: Tell me about a time... Pilots have the same thing, except ours are STIW stories: So there I was...

So there I was, waiting for our plane to get fixed so we could finish up the last leg of the day, get to the hotel, and call it a day. It had been a rather routine day so far. We were swapping into a different aircraft for this last brief leg to State College, PA, where we would spend the night.

Unfortunately this one had a problem with one of instruments. The Captain's side attitude indicator (the instrument that shows us whether we're level, pitched up or down, or banked) was fine, but my side showed a climbing right turn even while we were on the ground. The mechanics were called out, and they figured it would be a relatively fast fix. Just swap out the computer that feeds the instruments on my side and we'd be on our way. That quick fix would end up being the first thing that wouldn't go right that night.

Two hours later, with our 11:00 p.m. departure already 90 minutes late and counting, the mechanics gave up. The fight was going to be cancelled. However, by sheer luck one of our other planes taxied to the gate next to us. It was scheduled to be done for the night. We called dispatch and asked if we could take that one instead so the mechanics could work on ours overnight. They agreed, and the flight was back on.

A little over two hours late, we pushed back from the gate. Everything was going normally once again. Although usually the Captain flies the legs out of Dulles, a quirk in the day's schedule meant that it was my leg to fly instead. I was happy, since it meant I'd be landing at an airport that wasn't either Dulles or Newark.

I've discussed TAFs, or Terminal Area Forecasts, several times. The best post I have on them so far is An Incredible Forecast from an Incredible Storm, which is about Hurricane Sandy's effects reaching into the Cleveland area. You'll enjoy reading it, and that link will open in a new tab so you won't lose your place in this post.

The TAF for this night contained nothing to worry about. Four miles visibility and a high overcast layer. Easy peasy, even if it was night time.

One of the things about TAFs is that they're forecasts, not observations. In other words, like all forecasts, they're educated guesses. And tonight the forecaster guessed wrong.

The weather was fine until we got within 50 miles of the airport. The weather observation said the weather there was 1/4 mile visibility, which unfortunately was only half as much as we needed to shoot an approach. How could it be that wrong?

Since our only option was to turn around and head back to Dulles, we decided to slow down to conserve fuel and give the weather time to change. I wasn't optimistic about that happening, though, since 1/4 mile probably means night fog sitting over the airport. Since the winds were very light, there wouldn't be anything to push that fog away. Nevertheless, these people have waited for hours to get home, so we might as well give it the old college try. (Since we were going to State College after all.)

The weather hadn't improved by the time we arrived at the final approach fix. That meant we couldn't even legally try an approach. However, we could fly holding patterns over the final approach fix until either the weather improved to 1/2 mile or more (which, again, I considered extremely unlikely) or we reached our divert fuel level and had to go back to Dulles, whichever came first.

We had enough fuel to hold for approximately 50 minutes. After that, we would have no choice but to try again tomorrow. In the hold, the clouds were broken, meaning there were holes, so we could get occasional glimpses of the ground. This means, naturally, that all those passengers in back could see the ground, too, and probably wondered why we were flying around in circles.

Unfortunately, what they couldn't see from their sideways-facing windows that we could see out the front was a fog bank that started a few miles from the airport and extended as far as we could see. It was less than 1000 feet thick, but it covered everything ahead. And with no wind to move it, it almost certainly wasn't going anywhere. In the battle between fog with nowhere to go and no hurry to get there versus our fuel tanks with nowhere to go but down, I was 99.9% sure the fog was going to win.

We were preparing to divert back to Dulles. We had been holding for 45 minutes and calculated that we would be able to go around the holding pattern only two more times before having no choice but to go back to where we started. We had gotten our passengers six miles from home, but couldn't take them the rest of the way.

The entire time, we had been monitoring the AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System: a robot weather station) over the radio. It droned on, "visibility one-quarter; fog". (If you want to know what it sounds like, you can hear it via phone at (814) 865-8799. You can find one for your local airport by searching As we were turning outbound again, we heard, "visibility one-half, fog."

Wait! Did that just say 1/2? Let it loop again just to make sure we heard it correctly.

We did, and it did. And all we needed was a half-mile to start the approach! We immediately asked ATC for permission to commence an approach, and since it was 2 in the morning, with no one else in the sky at that late hour, we immediately received it.

As we turned inbound, we could see a long notch where the fog was still present but less dense, almost perpendicular to the airport. It was only about a mile wide, and happened to be passing over the airport at that exact moment. How quickly it was moving would determine if we would be able to make it in before it closed up again. It was going to be extremely close, and there would be no second chance. If the notch was gone by the time we got there, we had no choice but to head straight back to Dulles.

I turned inbound, intercepted the course, and started down. We were still in a bit of a cloud layer, so I was concentrating only on the instruments now and would be for the rest of the flight, no matter what happened from here on out.

"One thousand to minimums," the Captain said, starting the standard approach call-outs and counting down how much further we had to go before the missed approach point.

"Five hundred to go."

"Two hundred."

"One hundred."

"Approach lights in sight!"

I looked up. "I have the runway. Landing."

It ended up being one of my better landings. Good enough, in fact, that the planeload of passengers in back broke out into a hearty round of applause! (And crew scheduling probably clapped, too, because we ended the day only two minutes from exceeding our maximum FAA-allowable duty limits.)

It was close indeed. By the time we had reached the gate and opened the cabin door to let our weary-but-relieved passengers out, the notch in the fog had passed on. I don't know what the AWOS was saying, but I could barely see the terminal now, and it was less than 100 feet in front of us. But we were safe on the ground now where visibility was no longer an issue, except for making for a longer, slower cab ride to the hotel.

Since I was still a certified newbie, I had never been on an overnight at State College. I couldn't see anything out the window of the cab except fog, so I had no idea what the 2:30 a.m. scenery looked like. Once the sun rose, the fog began to burn off. It cleared up by the early afternoon, and as we were driving to the airport to fly the afternoon flight back, I had quite a shock.

State College has that name because it is the home of Penn State University. The road that goes from the hotel to the airport goes directly through the campus. As a matter of fact, it goes right next to Beaver Stadium: the fourth-largest stadium in the entire world, with a seating capacity of almost 107,000 people.

And I couldn't even see it on the drive in!

You see that road running directly in front of the stadium? I couldn't see the world's 4th-largest stadium from the road that night!
As if getting a round of applause on landing wasn't enough, many of the passengers stopped to say thanks as they were passing the cockpit door. One of the nicer things about being an airline pilot is that it is a meaningful job. We connect friends, loved ones, soldiers, and businesspeople. One of them said he was extremely relieved to make it because he had a big job interview in the morning.

By sheer coincidence, I happened to be having lunch in the hotel restaurant late the next morning. There was someone at the table next to mine, facing away from me. As I waited for my order to arrive, I heard the chatter typical of an interview. They were wrapping up the formalities and moving into casual conversation while they finished their meals. From behind, I heard, "I almost didn't make it here today. Last night the weather was terrible and my flight almost had to go back. I don't know how those pilots managed it, but we got in. They did a great job!"

No compliment means more than one you hear when the one giving it doesn't know you're around. Not bad for a rookie.

See the series index here.

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 FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. 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, April 15, 2015

Being an Airline Pilot, Week 9: Sitting Reserve

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Did you ever wonder what happens if an airline pilot gets sick, has their car break down on the way to the airport, or can't make it in for some reason? In other jobs, the other workers pick up the slack that day. One airline pilot, however, can't just decide to do the work of two people that day.

So does a planeload of passengers end up stranded at the airport because one person got the sniffles?

Nope. That's what reserves are for.

Welcome to reserve. It's a long staircase and you're at the bottom. And the escalators are out of order, rookie.
Being on reserve is where the fresh meat just out of training ends up. Once you get a line, you know what trips you'll be doing, on what days, and for how long. However, before you get there, you pay your dues by sitting reserve. Instead of knowing what you'll be doing—or even if you'll even do anything at all that day—you sit around waiting. And waiting. Aaaand waiting.

How long you'll be on reserve depends on what airline you fly for. At some, it can be a few months; at others, it can be several years. They all have one thing in common, however.

No matter if it's a few weeks or a few years, it's too long.

Pilots are different from most people. That's not news to anyone who knows a pilot (after all, my wife has been saying that for years). One of the ways we're different is that we're one of those rare lucky ducks who actually want to go to their job. Pilots want to fly. We're not good at sitting around all day wishing we were flying. (Most of us did enough of that before we got paid to do just that.)

Unfortunately, that's exactly what reserve ends up being many times: a whole day sitting around not flying, but not knowing you're not going to fly until your shift is over. Then heading back to a hotel room that you paid for yourself (unless you happen to live in base) and getting ready to do it all—or nothing at all—tomorrow.

Getting paid to sit around sounds like a pretty nice job, doesn't it? It's not. Imagine going to your job and being told you're to sit in the break room for the next 8 hours. And then the same thing the next day. And the day after that. And while you're imaging that, keep in mind all the time, money, and effort you spent to get that job in the first place, and now maybe you'll get to do that job, and maybe you won't.

It you still don't think it sounds that bad, or you just want to experience life as a brand-new airline pilot, sit in an uncomfortable chair and stare at this picture for the next 8 hours:

"So, what do you do for a living?" "This." "You watch the baggage carousel go in circles for a living?" "Exactly. I got a degree, paid almost $100,000 in plane rental and instruction costs, and spent years of my life passing 7 different FAA checkrides to sit here and make sure that carousel doesn't go anywhere. And so far it hasn't."

It may sound like you're being punished for making it all the way to this level, but in reality you actually do serve a very important purpose. If a crewmember gets sick, or gets stranded out of position due to a broken aircraft, or is going to "time out" (exceed the maximum duty hours the FAA allows), etc., you are called to step in and fly. You keep passengers lives from being disrupted by the inevitable.

If it weren't for reserves, thousands upon thousands of passengers each day would be stranded. Instead, 99% of them never know there was a problem. As a reserve, you're the reason they get home or to that important meeting or start their long-awaited vacation. You are the buffer that takes a minor scheduling burp and turns it into a non-event.

If you keep that in mind, and also keep in mind that it will eventually be over and you'll join the rest of the lineholders one day, you might be able to tolerate the long days of uncertainty. New airline pilots are often shocked at the transition. Some of them jump ship and head to a different airline, thinking that maybe things will be better somewhere else. It isn't; the grass is just as brown on the other side of the fence while you're on reserve. It gets better, but it takes patience.

To occupy my time, I spent the first few weeks getting to know every nook and cranny of Washington-Dulles. After a while, I knew the airport as well as Eero Saarinen himself. You know you're starting to become a reserve veteran when:
  • You can rank multiple different restrooms in preferential order
  • The hotel knows you by phone number
  • The information desk volunteers ask you questions about where things are
One game I created for myself to kill time was to guess where a particular flight was heading to without looking at the sign. After a while I got pretty good at being able to simply look at what the gaggle of passengers lined up in front of it was wearing, how many kids there were in line, or how the group was behaving, and usually tell where they were going. Mix of weird/trendy clothed people and people in business attire? San Francisco. Lots of strollers? Orlando. People actually having fun while standing in line? They're headed to Las Vegas and have already started partying. And so on.

Unfortunately, the game lost its appeal once I had been there long enough to have many of the flight time/destination pairs memorized. It's 5:15 p.m. and a bunch of people are lined up at D32. Seattle. It's 7:20 at D31. Denver. And so on.

One of the positive things about reserve, besides being the one who makes the difference between Little Suzie making it to grandma's house this afternoon or tomorrow morning, is that my photography skills improved from all the time I spent wandering around taking pictures. I also got to see some things I'd never seen before, like what it looks like when the "hood" is popped on a jet engine:

Here's yer problem. You were out of blinker fluid. Topped it off for you and cleaned the bugs off the windshield.
Or an interesting little bend in the otherwise-straight C/D concourse:

"Paging Captain Biv. Captain Roy G. Biv, please pick up the nearest courtesy phone."

And a terminal floor so immaculately polished you could almost fly in it:

Whoever is in charge of waxing the floors here seriously deserves a raise.

The good news is that, like all things, it eventually comes to an end. Once you get a line, quality of life improves dramatically. As I noted above, how long you're on reserve will depend on what company you're with. For me, it was 3 1/2 months, as I finished IOE on September 22nd and got a line on January 1st. That was long enough.

This post has been all about what it's like to not fly. However, I spent a lot of time actually flying while on reserve. In the next post, I have a nail-biting "so there I was" story that happened to me on a reserve trip.

See the series index here.

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 FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. 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.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Becoming an Airline Pilot, Week 8: IOE 3--the World's Newest Airline Pilot

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This is it. The last time I'll be evaluated. Well, at least until the next time I'm evaluated, since airline pilots do recurrent training every six months. But at least this is the last time before I get signed off and released to the line.

It's also the difference between being an airline pilot and being an unemployed pilot.

A good way to start the last trip.

This trip, much like the last, is simply another series of days like those I'll expect once I become a full-fledged member of the pilot group. However, since this time I'm specifically doing a trip that goes back and forth into Newark, I'm introduced to one of the more unpleasant aspects of flying into one of the NYC 3 airports: the GDP.

To everyone who's not an airline pilot, and to me up until this trip, GDP stood for Gross Domestic Product. Not anymore. Going into Newark, it stands for Ground Delay Procedure, a name which sounds more official and less unpleasant than "Hurry up and wait."

It had been an unseasonably hot September thus far. Temperatures had steadily been in the upper 80s to low 90s, which is not pleasant in an aircraft that doesn't have air conditioning if the engines aren't running. Today was a very pleasant change: beautiful blue skies, a gentle breeze, and about 70°. That last part was important, because upon getting the clearance we found out that we were going to be ground stopped for at least an hour and 45 minutes. We weren't going anywhere, but at least we'd be comfortable while we waited.

At least it gave me time to lock down my flows more and review some of the Blue Book. I was starting to get settled in, but still had a long way to go before I felt polished. But that is, after all, the point of IOE: to get experience under supervision in order to be polished enough to be set loose on the line. You won't be polished to the point of bright and shiny, but you'll be good enough to go out and get that way.

But if you get through IOE and you're still learning (and, like all things in aviation, you will always be learning), what happens if you get paired with a Captain who is brand new?

Don't worry: the FAA has already done the worrying for you. They won't allow a crew to be paired with one another unless at least one of them has 75 hours in their position. In other words, a brand new First Officer (like me) can't be paired with a brand new Captain. Somebody needs to know what they're doing up there, after all.

Seventy-five may seem like a strange number, but it actually has some merit. Once I had about 60-70 hours, I started feeling like I was actually contributing to the smooth flow of the flight instead of being a drag on it. By 75 hours in, I felt like I wouldn't be uncomfortable or unsafe flying with a newly-upgraded Captain—which was a good thing, because once I had barely squeaked over 100 hours, I ended up being paired with one who had a total of 3 Captain hours. That flight went quite smoothly.

Having all that downtime while sitting on the ground gave me a chance to talk to my IOE Captain about what I was doing well and what I needed to do to ensure I'd be ready to be signed off in a couple short days. As before, my flying skills were quite good, but my flows lagged behind. They were getting better and faster and I got more locked in, but still needed a bit more before being sign-off quality.

The difference in our personalities came into play in a quite beneficial way. In this case, we were polar opposites: I am a big-picture, intuitive kind of person, and he is an extremely detail-oriented, methodical person. That was exactly the kind of person I needed to learn from. As we talked things over during our delay, we figured out why my flows still had work to do.

It turned out my relatively large number of hours as a general aviation pilot before moving to the airlines was a negative in this case. I had picked up some habits that work fine in a 172, but not in a Dash-8. I was trying to do everything at once, and since there are so many things to do, I would often overlook something. In a small plane, it is possible to do almost everything at once, since all there is to do is a basic GUMPS (gas, undercarriage, mixture, props/pumps, and switches). In an aircraft like this, it isn't possible to just get everything done without a methodical process for doing so. That methodical process is the heart of a flow.

After that, I concentrated on not skipping ahead to something until I had completed what was supposed to be next. I broke the big flow into a series of smaller units, no more than 2-4 things in a chunk, and worked those chunks until each one was automatic, then strung those chunks together to make up the entire flow. By slowing down and concentrating only on what chunk I was on and what I was supposed to be doing in only that chunk, my performance during the second-to-last-day improved dramatically. I probably would never have figured that out unless I had someone as methodical as he was to make me see it.

The last day had come. The night before, we had deadheaded (flown as passengers instead of crewmembers) down to Dulles after the first three days at Newark. Those three days—despite a few more GDPs—went much smoother than the first and only time I had been here before. The controllers were still up to their old tricks, but I was ready for them this time. They had caught me by surprise the first time, but I wasn't about to let that happen again. As the saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." As part of the action, I even ended up shooting the Stadium Visual to 29 one day, which was the first time I'd ever done a charted visual approach. No problem. Bring it on.

The last day was here. As long as things went as well today as they did the day before, I'd be done. It was a short but fast-paced day, with one turn (going from one airport to another, dropping off the planeload of passengers, and then going back to the original airport with a new load of people) to one of our shorter routes, and then finishing with the shortest flight in our entire route structure: Dulles to Charlottesville, VA.

I ended up making the flight back in only 17 minutes. Although it was just a normal, uneventful flight to the passengers in the back of Flight 3601, that flight was the end of a long journey for me. It felt like it took months to reach this point—because it did! After 41.92 hours of IOE, I was officially signed off and deemed competent enough to be the world's newest real airline pilot. (For a few minutes, at least.)

I wouldn't be going home triumphantly, however. I, unfortunately, was immediately going to be starting two days on reserve before heading home. It certainly was better than going home for good, and I celebrated by going back to the hotel, turning on the television, and watching more TV that day than I'd watched in months, blissfully unaware of what being on reserve would end up being like.

And just like that, I was no longer becoming an airline pilot. I was now being an airline pilot.

See the series index here.

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 FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. 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.