Friday, November 2, 2007

"Zero Mile an Hour"...

In the mid to late 60's,before I was able to score a job with the majors, I went through what was a common right of passage at the time- flying the mail in the mid-south. It didn’t pay much, but the time looked good in your logbook and you certainly kept your skills polished.

Six nights a week my co-pilot Travis and I would crawl over the mail sacks stacked cabin roof high and slide into the cockpit seats of one of a series of tired out D18 Twin Beech’s. For several months our route was from Cape Girardeau, MO to Memphis, TN, then we'd wing west to Little Rock, AR, and finally northeast bound for Batesville and Jonesboro, AR.

We would leave at dusk from Cape Girardeau and by midnight or one AM find ourselves sitting in the Ops room at Little Rock with 30 other pilots where we’d take a brief break over coffee, check weather and swap pilot reports. It would be 2:30 or 3 AM before we'd be at our final stop. The weather that early morning was not promising. Batesville, the next stop was reporting minimums-800 overcast and 1-mile visibility-with fog. Jonesboro was about the same but it had an ILS approach (precision-straight in) where Batesville had only an NDB approach (non precision-circling).

When our the mail was sorted and readied for us, we’d walk out to our airplanes and load in 2200 lbs of the orange sacks. With fresh clearances, full fuel tanks and a hankering for a soft bed we would lock the tail wheel, unleash the snarling R985's and lift off into the low overcast skies bending our course for Batesville AR, only 55 minutes away from Little Rock yet very much a step back into another time.

Batesville had just a small airport then. It was, if my memory serves correct, only about 2700 feet long. It was built on the side of a hill with the north end (lower end) ending at an all night gas station. The station had a large neon and mechanical sign with a huge arrow that would light up and pulsate-pointing out the station and lighting up the area for a quarter of a mile around. If you took off down hill one of your major challenges was to miss the arrow! The other end (upper end) of the runway ended in a fruit and nut orchard, complete with an unlighted windmill standing 75+ feet high that irrigated the orchard. The single runway was only about eight (8) feet wider than the gear on the D18. and the taxiways of which there were three (a parallel and two connectors) had even less width.
The city was very proud of their little airport. They had secured Federal funds for paving the runway, putting in a NDB beacon, and building a tiny brick 10 by 10 foot airport operations office building maybe 100 feet from the runway with a new and shiny rotating beacon shouldering up against the building. By the time we arrived into Batesville the normal daytime folk were long gone and there was only one lonely fellow, lets call him "Bubba".

Bubba was a Good ‘Ol Boy, of that I am sure. He stood about 6’1” dressed in his always clean Oshkosh bib overalls; chewed Red Man-which sometimes left a streak of brown juice on his chin. He drove an older Ford pickup that was in excellent running condition and he loved to hunt “critters” and be with his dogs. His main dog was named “Ole Blue”. He had several dogs that would be around him or under his feet and most of them also answered to “Blue”, “Ole Blue”, “Shi** Blue!”or something like that.

Bubba's employer had tutored him through the weather test so sitting in the tiny operations office he could give us an airport weather report before we commenced an approach. Then he’d help us unload the mail sacks and truck the load into the town's post office after we’d take off to the next stop.

Many times he’d ask us to stay over and go “coon hunting” with him. That usually coincided with one of his dogs howling or barking when he mentioned the word hunt or hunting, while the rest of the pack salivated or urinated over the sacks of mail. He’d just stand there, his thumbs hooked on the straps of his bib overhauls and smile. I liked Bubba.

That one night we’d approached from Little Rock with a layer of fog below us that stretched for a hundred miles in all directions. It was Travis’s approach and I picked up the weather from “ole Bubba”.

“Say there Batesville, whata ya got for me?”
“Hi there Cap! It’s 800 overcast, with one mile viss-a bility and the wind is out of the noarth at zeeero malll an hour.”

Great, we thought, Batesville’s weather was good enough for the approach and soon we’d be on our way to the last stop of the night. ATC issued us a “cruise clearance” and Travis bent our course outbound for the procedure turn area. We passed the final approach fix inbound, punched the clock, rolled the checklist and started down for the MDA. But when we reached the missed approach point we were still in solid clouds that only reflected the blue flicker of the engine exhausts and red and green navigation lights. We could see nothing of Batesville. Travis called the missed approach and we went back for another try. That too, ended in no sighting of the airport.

“Hey Bubba, what’s the weather now?”
“Cap, it’s 800 overcast, one mall visibility and the winds out of the noarth at zero mall an hour.”

Travis looked at me, I shrugged my shoulders and tapped the yoke with my hand. I’d try the next approach. That too ended in a missed approach.

“Look, maybe we could duck under by 50 feet. That might give us a chance to see something,”
“No, on this next one I want you to open your window and look straight down. Hell, we should see that gas station sign or the glow from it at least! And there’s the rotating beacon, usually you can see it for miles.”
“Ok, I’ll start the time and open the window and look, then lets head for Jonesboro, I’ve got that waitress waiting ya’ know”.
Oh that Travis, he was like a sailor when it came to girlfriends at every port.

In bound we both concentrated on our jobs, and crossing the final approach fixthe time was started and we descended toward the MDA. Travis's hair was swirling in the breeze of the open window while I concentrated on flying the approach. Crossing the little radio station located right next to the airport rotating beacon we could see nothing and we commenced the missed approach.

“Did you see anything Travis?”
“Nahh, not a damn thing.”
“OK, let’s head to Jonesboro, it’s your airplane, I’ll talk to center.”

Travis took the controls and I reported back to center that we were on our way to Jonesboro. The weather there was better they assured. I settled back into my chair and noted the missed approaches into the company log; then I picked up the microphone and called back to Batesville.

“Batesville, you there Bubba?”
“Hey, Ah am here, Cap.”
“Hey Bubba, we missed all of the approaches, we couldn’t find your airport.”
“Yah, I figgerd that, be’ in like it is.”
“Like it is?” Now that got my attention.
“Bubba, can you see the sign at the gas station?”
“No ahh cain’t.”
“Bubba, can you see the runway lights?” (they were 200' from the building)
“Ahh no ah cain’t.”
“Bubba, can you see the light from the rotating beacon on the tower next door?”
“No ah cain’t see that neither.”
“Bubba just what can you see?”
“Heck Cap, ah cain’t see nothing. Ah’m feared of driving home or going into the post office at this hour. Ah cain’t even see ‘ta drive the fog is so bad.”
“Bubba, then why did you give us that report?”
“Hey Cap. If’n I don’t the boss is going to get mad ‘cause you won’t be able to land with the mail. No mail, no money.”
A smile started to creep over my face.

“OK Bubba, drive safe, we’ll see you tomorrow night.”

Into the early morning darkness the tired D-18 rattled and roared toward Jonesboro while Travis and I sat there laughing like we’d heard the latest joke. And the joke was on us. I retell this story once in a while…and I still like Bubba.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Less Is More- whether you like it or not.

Recently there has been much discussion in the aviation press about service problems with the contractor that took over the operation of the Flight Service Stations. I agree with the press, as the service is slower and may not be up to the quality we have seen over the 75 years that FSS's have been around. But wait there's more! At the same time the FAA wants to pull the contract from the two private firms (DUAT & DUATS) that have been performing good service for pilots especially with the advent of PC's for those that can brief and file on line or via a flight planning program.

I don't believe for a moment the problems are the fault of the employees of Lockheed Martin, DUAT, or DUATS; the times I've worked with them over the telephone or on a PC they've gone out of their way to do a good job. It is because of a "modern" business management technique named “Less Is More”. The technique itself is a fallacy and the lemming like drive to structure it within our flight planning is why we are being short changed.

I first became aware of the Flight Service Station when it was still under the Civil Aeronautics Administration when I started flying in 1956. It was next door to the FBO at Walla Walla and it was a wondrous place full of teletypes that were constantly clacking, radio speakers alive with chatter from passing aircraft, and at least one or more staff personnel that were busy talking with airplanes, briefing pilots, filing flight plans, taking weather observations, giving DF steers, posting the print outs from the teletypes and fax machines, and the many other jobs they were to perform. The door was always open to this teenager and the guys that worked there became like "wise uncles" that would dispense their wisdom about the weather through out the Pacific North West and how they made that determination. Over the next couple of years they became good friends and coaches upon which I could rely, more than once sharing their coffee as we waited for the fog to clear. They stressed the importance of a flight plan when I flew and their advice carried through when an engine skipped a beat and then ground to a halt letting me down in rough country-they were the first to call for help. But as labor costs climbed there began a slow but steady restructure of the FSS system. The FSS at Walla Walla stayed a fixture until well into the 80's but was ultimately combined into the Seattle office and the employees moved to the big city.

About that same time I was at a meeting of the Engineering and Air Safety department of the Air Line Pilots Association in Washington, DC. The Deputy Director of the FAA was addressing the group and announced the implementation of automated weather reporting equipment at many airports through out the US. At first it sounded interesting until he revealed the limits of the automated systems. The first system could only see 12,000 feet above the airport and only a mile or two around it in a circle. You could have a squall line, thunderstorm or tornado advancing on the airport but the automated system could not know. I rose and posed several questions to the Deputy Director and to me his answers were chilling. Even more FSS stations would be eliminated. Trained FSS or accredited observers (humans) were no longer necessary to take the weather. The local knowledge that had been so necessary to the safe operation of a flight would be gone. The limits of the system would be made up with satellite images that you could obtain from your airline or visiting the local FSS-if you could find one. Less is more.

Today when a GA pilot rings up a FSS his/her phone call can be answered by someone a thousand miles away- that is when the "poor sod" on the other end has the time to answer the call because of the lack of staffing. Yes, they are trying hard to give a good briefing, and the pilot should have the knowledge to access and understand all of the information available, however not all pilots do know all that they should and the input of caution from a wise briefer with local knowledge can save a life-if the pilot will listen. Good bye to the local sage.

In this .Com age we also have the ability to brief for a flight and file our flight plans using DUAT or DUATS-at least for a few more months. Both firms are contractors able to duplicate many of the services of the FSS and also grant some extra value. They both offer their own version of a flight planning/routing service that is good and also allow many flight planning software programs such as Seattle Avionics’ "Voyager" to use DUAT or DUATS for a weather source and flight plan filing. Their service is quick, through, and enhances safety. Nothing wrong with that is there, yet the FAA has said they are pulling the plug on both contractors in a few months for there is no need for them. Of course, the fact that Lockheed Martin has not made a method for the very popular flight planning software programs to link to the FSS was neither mentioned nor valued. Consequently, the software that you use and trust will go dead, thanks to some bureaucrat’s decision. So please forgive me if I don’t agree with the FAA's decision as I can’t understand how-if they used reason and common sense-they could once again assure us that "less is more".

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

You can't get there from here...

Recently I was with a student on his first cross-county. This was a nice young man that had grown up on Flight Simulator™ or X-Plane™. After DA-20’s engine run-up was complete he started to load in his proposed route into the Garmin 430.

“Whoa”, I said, what gives?” “I want to put in my route”, he replied and continued to spin and punch in the dials. “You want to use the GPS routing function for this cross-country?” “Sure, I read where VOR’s and stuff were not as accurate as GPS so I’m using the GPS.”

He was nonplus when I asked him to stop, and went on to remind him that this lesson was on pilotage, dead reckoning, basic VOR navigation, and some basic attitude instrument time thrown in if we had time. We had discussed this in our ground school session; I had pointed out that a pilot must first learn the basics, and learn them well before we go on the more “exotic” methods of navigation.

My student folded his chart and stuck it in the side pocket; next he brought out the navigation log he had prepared in the ground session. “You mean I really have to use this?” he asked. And so the flight progressed.

The first rule of basic pilotage is learning to quickly identify the terrain and the man made objects on the ground then correlate them to what is on your chart. Go ahead and learn all of those “funny symbols” in the legend and AIM, as that knowledge will come in handy for as long as you fly.

The second rule is to understand you are in an ocean or “mass” of air and therefore like the currents in an ocean or river move a boat-you are moving in relation to the air mass. You will be blown off course if you do not take into account the movement of the air mass.

The third rule is that visibility and cloud cover is always changing-usually not for the better. Because we can be confused by what we see below or loose sight of an important checkpoint ahead it is important for pilots to maintain their skills in the basics of pilotage, dead reckoning and continue to use the tried and true navigation log.

For example, if you were diligent and noted that you passed over check point “X” at 1520 then computed ground speed and placed a revised ETA for the next checkpoint you are now steps ahead. Because if you can’t find checkpoint “Y” when you expect and/or the visibility ahead is closing down on you then you may refer to that pesky "nav" log. In black and white it shows that so many minutes ago you were over check point “X”. You can then make a 180 degree turn and correcting for the wind direction and velocity fly that course back to your last known check point. From there you may choose to land at the nearest airport and re-configure your course to your next destination.

Understanding basic pilotage, simple dead reckoning and keeping a record of your transit over the ground in the navigation log is vital to a safe cross-country flight. Even in the cockpit of that airliner streaking by overhead one of the cockpit crew is noting time of passage, etc. over a checkpoint on their dispatch release and log. And by the way, that old fashioned VOR system in North America is very good and the accuracy is constantly tested and assured. It has worked since the ‘40’s and I believe will do so for years to come.

In flying a competent pilot is one that is ahead of the airplane-far ahead. Dave Cowan, a good friend and veteran CFI says, …”It’s very simple, it’s all about what’s next and then what comes after that.”

Monday, September 17, 2007

Captain Mike's BFR Questions

Since I was on the subject earlier today. How about taking this short test and seeing how you fared. Go ahead and use your AIM to help you. I will post the answers next week.

Certification and Currency

1. If you hold both a glider and an airplane license, do you need a flight review for each? FAR 61.56

2. If you change your address, you are required to notify the FAA, in writing, within…? FAR 61.60

3. Are you required to log each flight? FAR 61.51

4. In order to carry passengers you must have how many takeoffs and landings within how many days? At night? How many to a full stop? FAR 61.57

Operating rules

1. Who is the final authority for the safe operation of the flight? FAR 91.3

2. Are you ever allowed to deviate from the FAR’s? FAR 91.3

3. You are flying above 12,500 feet but less than 14,000 feet. How long can you legally fly before you must use oxygen? FAR 91.211

4. You’ve had a beer at 2AM. You can legally fly no earlier than? FAR 91.211

5. What documents are required to be in the aircraft?

6. What is the minimum legal altitude for a loop? FAR 91.301

7. What is the “Minimum Safe Altitude”? FAR91.119


1. Can a pilot legally fly through a restricted area?

2. Can a pilot legally fly through a MOA Military Operations Area?

3. What is Class D airspace and what are the rules for operating in Class D airspace?

4. What is Class C airspace?

5. What are the rules and dimensions for operating in Class C airspace? Is special equipment required?

6. What are the minimum visibility requirements for operating in Class E airspace above 1200 AGL and below 10,000 MSL?

7. If you get a clearance to climb above 18,000 ft, what do you set in your altimeters kollsman window?


1. Explain the difference between variation and deviation.

2. What is the difference between course and heading?

3. Your altitude should clear all of the rocks between Bozeman and Helena, Mt., and there is no wind today. Your current sectional chart shows a true course of 338 degrees, the magnetic variation is 16 degrees east. Your magnetic course will be?


1. What is angle of attack?

2. Explain the handling and stall characteristic of an airplane loaded far aft of the Center of Gravity range?

3. How will it handle and stall if loaded forward of the C.G. range?

4. What happens to your stall speed in a turn? Why?

5. Explain maneuvering speed and why it is important.

6. What is the purpose of the rudder in a turn?

7. Why should a pilot constantly maintain the factory recommended approach speed to landing? Choose one.

a. It gives the pilot more time to concentrate.
b. A 15% increase in the landing speed equals a 15% increase in the landing distance.
c. A 10 % increase in the final approach speed over the recommended speed will cause a 20 % increase in the landing distance.
d. So that you will not wear out the brakes trying to stop.


1. When a fast moving cold front overtakes a warm front, the narrow band of weather formed out ahead of the cold front is called?

2. When flying from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area, what is the effect on the altimeter?

3. When crossing the Cascade Mountains from west to east, on which side is the greatest amount of icing found? Why?

4. After entering cumulous clouds you decide to climb to get out of some light icing. Is this a good or a bad idea and why?

5. A Boeing 737 reports light to moderate turbulence and a trace of ice on climb out through 10,000 ft east bound from Seattle. You are 8 miles behind him; what can you expect for turbulence and icing in your Piper Commanche?

6. You are considering landing your Cessna 172 (A model) at a high mountain airport on a very hot day. Considering this, you wonder what your Pressure Altitude is at your present indicated altitude of 8500’. What is the easiest way to find this out?

7. You should avoid a thunderstorm by at least ___ miles? What if it is within five mile of or over the airport at the time of your take off or landing?

On second thought.

“There I was upside down, hanging by my chinstrap”...and so the story went about deeds of daring. If you are lucky enough to have been around a group of pilots from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s you might have heard some tall tales about flying. True, some of the tales strained the limits of truth, but many had good lessons woven into them.

In the first 5 years of my flying all of my flight instructors were service veterans. They had served this country in WWI, WWII, and Korea.

There was a wheat farmer named Lew; a short, cocky, profane, but very knowledgeable guy with a nose, my mother once said, belonged on a hawk. A WWI aviator he’d flown with Eddie Rickenbacker in the 94th Aero Squadron and had four kills to his credit; his eyes never stopped looking for some place to put the airplane down if the engine quit. “Always be lookin’ kid- and make every preflight the best-‘cause you never know when something will break.”The memory of those engines behind which he had flown in the first world war still haunted him.

Cliff flew B-17’s, survived every mission to gain a command and come home to teach others. Later he became the executive officer of the Washington Air Guard and ran a thriving aerial application business. He could tell you were having a bad day by the way you walked. He had a million dollar smile and would stand off and watch you, judging everything you did. Once he was satisfied he would make a comment here or show a procedure there and was always spot on. He was not afraid to give me a chance to prove myself working a Stearman over wheat and pea fields of Southeastern Washington state. Thanks, Cliff.

Bill, the best pilot I ever knew, had raced motorcycles before the war. He had little education-but raw skill- and talked his way into the right seat of a B-17. He got four missions out of the way when they took a direct hit over Austria; he spent the last two years in a Stalag. Now he’d instruct once in a while when the crop dusting was thin-if I could stand the cigar that seemed to be always clenched between his teeth. To this day, I don’t know how I was able to keep my stomach down training with him in that Luscombe 8E for my commercial maneuvers while the smoke from his El Roy Tan cigar in the cockpit brought the visibility down to less than three miles.

Dale was in the South Pacific moving from island to island fighting the enemy, heat, and the tropic illnesses that plagued him for years after. Yet, he was a gifted instructor and mechanic, you always got an in-depth discussion of what and why you were going to do-before you did it. He was patient but he would suffer no fools- you learned or else. Thank you.

Finally, there was Boyd, a former Marine that had been in the “Frozen Chosan” at the age of 19 and fought his way out. A taciturn man that never spoke before he had his morning coffee, he loved flying, was a patient teacher, and was trust worthy and a gentleman in all ways. He never went to the airlines as he’d dreamed for he had no degree nor was he a military pilot. He stayed doing what he did best-being a champion instructor and leader- training more than two thousand students, and later moving on to the FAA; then chief pilot of a regional airline. With everyone he demanded intelligent and safe flying. His students learned, followed his example, and all thought highly of him. “Semper Fi” Marine.

If there was a single thread from one to the other it was their common sense approach to flying. Even though each was skilled and in some way had helped write history, none of them would pass for the “Ace of the base”. If there was a type "A" personality in them the "A" part sat on the sidelines when they flew.

Three of this group made their living crop dusting in Oregon and Washington State; however, they looked at every facet of each job and took nothing by chance. Each man over his career acquired thousands of hours and lived to a ripe old age. Now, I ask you, could that be the key to safe flying, take nothing by chance?

Thanks for dropping by,


On the flight line.