A good friend of mine landed a pretty sweet gig a few years ago making him one of the few people in the world that I’m jealous of. His name is Nick Halseth and every summer he gets to travel around the world as the team leader for the Lucas Oil skydiving demonstration team. The team performs for all kinds of events; drag races, rodeos, 4th of July events, casino openings, and the like. But the days that really turn his crank are when they get to perform at airshows.
Being part of the airshow as one of the performers gives him a unique perspective on the in’s and out’s of how airshows are run and how the pilots work with other to put on a great show. It also gives Nick some fantastic opportunitys to practice other passion which is photography. Not only does he have unlimited access to the flight line but over the years he’s done such a fantastic job he’s become the go to guy when pilots want great air to air shots of them doing cool stuff in their cool planes. Of course to get air to air shots means you have to be in a airplane as well so Nick get’s to ride in some pretty sweet aircraft. “Hey Nick, could you go up in that B-25 and sit in the tail gunner’s position and take pictures of the Thunderbirds while they fly in formation with a P-51 Mustang and an F4U Corsair please?”
Here’s one the video’s he put together from last year’s airshow circuit.
You’ve all seen these signs at construction sites and the like and you all know I own a skydiving school, which I’m sure most of you think is really just accident factory. Well i’m here to tell you that nothing could be farther from the truth, except when it isn’t. For the most part, skydiving is a “relatively” safe sport. I could quote statistics on how much safer it is than this or that activity (such as driving, or calling your wife fat) but you wouldn’t listen. As far as most of you are concerned, only two things fall from the sky. Bird sh!t and fools. So I’m not going to bother. But I’ll tell you this, in the skydiving community we take our safety VERY seriously! Every year before we start tossing our flabby bodies from reasonably maintained airplanes we all get together for a safety day where we go over emergency procedures, safety issues and the latest and greatest safety devices that those guys with big brains come up with to keep us from hitting the ground with more speed than is generally considered safe. Our safety day was this Saturday my staff and I thought it was a big success. We had a big turn out and even though I was the main speaker it seemed like everyone actually paid attention. We were looking forward to (hoping for) an accident season.
Well that all ended yesterday, the very first day of jumping, when I heard one of my staff say “Remember to take a cell phone with you! Just like Kerry said yesterday!” My first thought was “What!? The only time I mentioned taking a cell phone with you was when……….someone was hurt. Shit. I ran outside the building and saw people running to a still form in the student landing area surrounded by a parachute. Again…shit. I ran out to help and was relieved to see the jumper laying on his side, conscious and talking. “I think I broke my leg.” With the situation changed from life or death to “Bummer dude, you’re going to miss 8 to 10 weeks of the skydiving season” I started my official accident investigation with the classic “What happened?” Apparently he just made the classic mistake of turning too low in order to face the wind on landing and hit the ground before he completed the turn. He said “I knew I was too low halfway through the turn.” Instead of commenting on his mistake or calling him something unflattering I expressed sympathy and hoped he’d be back soon. Not really the time to call him a moron. I think he was doing that enough for both of us.
P.S. one other note, he is a transplant jumper from another state (so I didn’t train him) and he missed my safety day presentation from the day before, (maybe he should’ve taken the time)
PP.S. Got word today, he’s going to be OK. Had surgery to to fix his broken femur (ouch) but will be back in the sky later this summer. Hopefully a bit smarter because if you’re going to be stupid you’d better be tough.
It’s opening day at Skydive Twin Cities but unfortunately we got snow overnight, ( it’s too cold to jump) and the wind is howling, (so it’s too windy to jump) So instead of posting some sh!t Hot video from our first day of the season I’m posting the latest Sh!t hot wing suiting video from Norway. I especially like when these guys buzz the gondolas on their way down. And you wonder why wingsuit pilots are getting killed in record numbers? OK, maybe you’re not wondering.
What are you going to do? THAT’S the question. In every pilot’s career he’s (BTWI always use”he” when referring to pilots. It’s not that I’m sexest, my daughter is a pilot, it’s just that I that having to write “he or she” ten times a day.) Anyway, in every pilot’s career he’s going to have to make a tough decision every now and again. You know, go, or no go? Most of the time it’s based on the weather, sometimes it’s that something’s wrong with the plane, or maybe you just drank too much the night before and you’re not feeling one hundred percent. (not that that ever happens to pilots for pity’s sake) Now for most non-professional pilots the decision is usually an easy one. If everything isn’t perfect, just say screw it and head to the bar. Easy. But for pilots who heard pieces of junk through the sky in return for little bits of colored paper (money) there are other factors that come into play. “But Kerry, I thought you weren’t supposed to let outside factors influence your decision making process!” you might say. And I might say to you dear reader that if you believe that bull sh*t you’ll believe anything they tell you in flight school. Remember when they told you that pilots make tons of money, lead lives filled with adventure and that chicks dig them? Well, OK,all that true, but when the mechanic tells you that the plane’s supposed to make that noise, that’s bull. Dang, Where was I? Oh yeah, outside pressures to fly when things aren’t just right. Guys who have people counting on them to make that flight happen might just give it a go when the weather is marginal, one of the radios is acting up or they just feel like hell. It’s called professional responsibility. Also known as “pressure” Of course the real trick is to know when the situation or circumstances are such that you head to the bar despite the pressure. And making that decision correctly, my friend, only comes from experience. And like the old saying goes “Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.”
So, without further ado. A bad decision.
A long long time ago in a country far far away, I was hired to help ferry an Embraer Phenom 100 from Sydney Australia to Las Vegas. The Phenom is a sleek, sort of fast, business jet that is a ton of fun to fly but has one vital flaw. It has short legs. Not landing gear, range. 800-900 miles is about the limit it can go with out stopping to re-fuel. In the jet world that’s not a lot. But you can’t have everything and when you’re ferrying, you don’t get to choose what planes you fly and how they were designed. You just deal with what you’re dealt. The trip was amazing but due to the short range of the Phenom it had a lot of stops and a lot of legs that didn’t leave us with a lot of reserve. The longest was a leg from Petropavlovsk to Anadyr, or from the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsula to just shy of the Bering Strait. A little over 900 miles, right on the edge of the Phenom’s range.
When we got to Petropavlovsk our handler (another beautiful but grumpy Russian woman)informed us that the weather forecast for Anadyr wasn’t exactly what we’d been hoping for, in fact it was downright gloomy. She told us that the weather was currently 900 feet overcast with 5 miles visibility, not bad. Unfortunately the conditions were supposed to be worse by the time we got there.
“After that?” we asked, “Worse”
And after that? “Even worse.”
The lower ceilings forecast and visibility were right on the edge of what we could do safely. The biggest problem with going was that if the weather system moved in faster than was forecast we could find ourselves in a pickle with nowhere to go because the only other airport way up there on top of the world was west of Anadyr and that’s where the bad weather was coming from. Nope, we said take us to the hotel and we’ll try and recover from our crushing disappointment by drinking smooth Russian Vodka and chatting up the beautiful but grumpy Russian women. We’ll be fine.
That’s when Natasha (seriously, that was her name and she looked and sounded just like Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show) informed us that at this time of year when those big weather systems roll in from Siberia the Kamchatka can sometimes be shut down for up to a month.
Well, that certainly puts a different spin on things doesn’t it?
The Captain and I were certainly willing to spend a day or even two chilling at a hotel in exotic Russia. But a month is something altogether different. We poured over the forecast some more, mumbling, hemming and hawing, looking at each other with “what do you think?” eyes. All the while knowing that the longer we waited the closer the bad weather was to Anadyr. The captain was unwilling to make the call alone because even though it was his career on the line it both of our asses. Not wanting to spend a month cooling my heels I suggested we launch immediately and see how things looked enroute. If by the time we got to the point of no return the weather still looked good we’d continue, if it looked like it was going down faster than predicted we’d turn around. Simple, safe, aggressive. OK, it wasn’t simple or safe, but one out of three isn’t bad.
We took off and when we arrived at the point of no return called for a weather update for Anadyr. 500 feet, 2 miles visibility. Not great, but not too bad. They told us that the clouds were dropping and the fog was thickening but very fast. Dang, not a slam dunk either way. Once again we gave each other the “what ya wanna do?” look. In the end we decided to push on rationalizing that at the rate the clouds were dropping it should still be above our 200 foot limit by the time we got there, and besides, we had a great plane with a glass cockpit and a state of the art autopilot that could take us right down to the runway if needed. Onward!
We crossed the point of no return optimistic about our chances. So of course twenty minutes later ATC called to inform us that the conditions at the field had dropped to 400 feet and the worsening trend had increased.
20 minutes after that 300 feet.
Things were starting to get a bit gloomy in the cockpit. We’d made our choice and were committed so the was nothing much to say but our silence said it loudly anyway.
200 feet. 1/4 mile vis.
With 30 minutes left to go the sun went down, which in a low approach situation actually makes it easier to find the runway in the fog. Of course if we couldn’t find the runway and ran out of fuel we’d have no chance of surviving an off airport landing. As we approached the airport we had enough fuel for three or maybe four approaches but we agreed that if the first one was looking good we’d continue down past the missed approach altitude even if we couldn’t see the runway environment. Our reasoning was that the conditions were just getting worse as time went on so we might as well make the first one count. On the approach the captain monitored the autopilot and instruments while I called off the altitude and looked outside for the runway lights. 500, 400, 300, 200, 100…LIGHTS! Throttle to idle, touchdown.
Didn’t get killed….again.
Number one son has been home from his seven month stint with Uncle Sam for all of 3 days, so enough lying around the house, time to get back to work learning how to fly. It’s going to take me a little time to finish my CFI rating, especially since my flight lesson tomorrow is going to be rained out, so until I’m, you know, legal and all, I’m going to keep Connor’s informal flight training going. I started teaching Connor to fly when he was three years old and I had to break in a new engine on one of my Cessna 182 jump planes. That first intensive lesson consisted him sitting on my lap and steering for three hours. Actually he only steered for fifteen minutes before falling fast asleep, leaving me to finish the break in session all by myself. Whimp. I mean come on, do your part son, don’t make me do all the work. And to make matters worse the first thing the little dickens did when I set him down on the ramp after we landed was throw up. OK, that part was pretty funny. That was sixteen years ago. Today I needed to move another Cessna 182 jump plane from one airport to another and once again I brought my little buddy along. Only this time he did all the flying. We started off with a real life soft field takeoff from a soggy grass strip, followed by a 60 mile cross country trip where we practiced slow flight, steep turns, radio procedures, (he needs a lot of work there) and cross wind landings. He parked the plane on almost the exact spot he threw up on all those years ago. I think I’ll make a pilot out of him yet.
After my somewhat disappointing start in my quest to obtain the coveted CFI rating I decided to change flight schools and instructors. I found a well recommended instructor to work with but unfortunately he doesn’t have access to an aircraft with retractable landing gear and according to the FAA you have to have that thingy on the plane you use when you take your check ride. That might make some kind of sense to the powers that be but it adds about $1000 to total price tag. Bummer. Luckily the flight school at the airport down the road has an Arrow I can rent so down I went this morning for to get checked out in the mighty Arrow III. The instructor who worked with me happened to be the same one that soloed my daughter Claire (AKA Super Girl) Why don’t I work on getting my CFI rating with this guy you ask? Because he’s not too comfortable in training a CFI in training because he’s never done one before and doesn’t think I’d be well served. I do appreciate who knows his limitations.
The check out went OK. Once again I had more flight time in the aircraft we were using than the instructor but it had been about 20 years since I’d flown one so it was good to go over things again. We started off by going over the pre-flight quiz that I’d had Connor fill out for me. That’s right, I had my son do my homework for me. OK, we did it together. I was teaching him how to look up all kinds of stuff in a pilot’s operating manual. You know, how to start the damn thing and make it fly, stuff like that. Anyway, we went up, we flew around, we landed a few times and when we were done the plane was still flyable. So now I’m cleared to fly the Arrow all by myself. yay!
It’s official, Number One Son Connor is the US Army’s newest UH-60 Blackhawk crew chief! After being gone for seven months (except for a short Christmas break) Connor finally arrived back home with a shiny pair of silver aircraft crew member wings on his chest. To say that I’m proud of my son would be the understatement of the century.
For the uninitiated and ill informed, which includes almost everyone I would guess, to become a US Army helicopter crew chief one must first attend the four month helicopter repairer school (not repairman you sexest) and learn everything there is to know about how to fix and maintain the UH-60 Black Hawk. The Army’s policy of making the crew chiefs helicopter mechanics first before letting them ride around in the back being all in charge and stuff makes a lot of sense. Because seeing that the Black Hawk in a, you know, “military” helicopter and people (AKA bad guys) have a tendency to sometimes shoot at all things military it’s probably a good thing that the guy riding in the back knows how to fix things if they get broke. Of course Connor’s training is just getting started. When he reports to his unit they will begin teaching him everything a crew chief needs to know about helicopter operations. Such things as: Aerial gunnery (shooting at stuff) Sling loading (carrying stuff) Observation (looking for stuff) Hoist operation (rescuing stuff) and a thousand other things (dealing with stuff).
And if I wasn’t proud enough Connor somehow managed to come out of school first in his class, earning him the title of Distinguished Honor Graduate, which made him incredibly happy, but that meant that he was the one selected to stand in front of the entire graduating class and guests and recite something called ‘The conscience of the aviation maintainer” which didn’t.
And, as I’ve mentioned before, I also earned a silver pair of wings back when the I was young and dinosaurs still roamed the earth.
Of course we didn’t have the big bad Black Hawk back then. No, we flew a real man’s helicopter, the Huey! Don’t get me wrong, the Black Hawk is an amazing piece of equipment, but nothing beats the Huey for shear badassery.
And once again, for your listening pleasure, “The Huey Song”
Don’t let the naked lady scare you off, it’s safe for all ages.
Yesterday morning dawned cold and clear. The readout on my car’s dashboard read 27 degrees F as I pulled out of my driveway for the long drive to the big city and the flight school I’d chosen to help me get my CFI rating. Another readout said 6:30AM Ugh. But the cold early Sunday morning drive would be worth it. The weather forecast was good and I’d finally get to start the flying part of my flight instructor training. Crappy weather had grounded me for the last week and I’d been getting just a little bit cranky. When I got to the flight school Leslie (my fellow CFI candidate) had already pre-flighted the Piper Arrow (good boy!) and the line boy was pulling it out of the school’s heated hanger, Nice! No lift killing frost to scrape off, a warm cockpit to climb into, and an easy to start warm engine. A good start! Then I met our flight instructor for the day. He wasn’t the chief instructor we’d been working with so far but on of his younger minions who was carrying a flight bag the size of a steamer trunk. I mean really, who flies with that much crap? We weren’t going to fly more than 20 miles from the airport for crying out loud. Then to make matters worse the first thing he did was to put that monster of a bag into the cargo compartment behind the rear seats. I mean if you’re going to fly with that much (apparently vital) equipment at least have it available. Oh well I didn’t care, it was a beautiful morning and I was going flying.
Then the instructor had to go and spoil my good mood by informing us that instead of working on the flight maneuvers we’d need to perform during our upcoming FAA check ride we’d instead spend out two hours of flight time getting us checked out to fly the mighty 200 horsepower Piper ArrowII. Great. Additionally, seeing that there were two of us it was unlikely that we’d finish up with both of us. More great. He then asked if either us had any Arrow time. Leslie had none and I told him that I had logged about 50 hours flying one, leaving out the fact that I’d flown one from the US to Rome, Italy many years ago. Seeing that Leslie would need more work the instructor elected to put him up front first. It was at this point that I should have elected to stay on the ground and spend the time studying for my written test. Instead I climbed into the back of the tiny plane to observe the teaching methods of the instructor. But as we were taxing to the runway I was wondering if I’d made the right choice. I didn’t know the instructor at all and I knew Leslie was relatively inexperienced. There was no reason for me to be taking the risk of flying with two unknown pilots in a small plane. Stupid.
Leslie lived up to my expectations as a new pilot with clumsy radio calls to the tower and a not very smooth takeoff but it wasn’t all that bad so I sat back and observed. The first thing the instructor had him do was steep turns. A pretty basic maneuver where you roll into a 360 degree turn to the left followed by another to the right. You’re supposed to hold a 45 degree bank the entire time and not gain or loose more than 100 feet. Pretty simple. But Leslie struggled. He pitched up , he pitched down, his speed varied all over the place. In his defense he was flying from the right seat for the first time and if you’ve never done it before it’s kind of like writing left handed. I didn’t care that Leslie wasn’t doing perfect, what I did care about was the fact that the instructor wasn’t monitoring our airspeed very closely. I could see the airspeed indicator clearly from the backseat and watched as we got slower and slower. At one point while still in a steep bank we got so slow that the aircraft started buffeting, (a sign of an imminent stall) and I could tell the instructor had no clue. “How do you not feel that?” I wondered. If we stalled while in a steep turn we’d almost surly go into a spin and seeing that we were only 1500 feet above the ground I didn’t have a ton of faith that the two knuckle heads up front would recover before we made a big smoking hole in the ground. I finally had enough and said “Watch your speed!” over the intercom. The instructor was a little shocked at how slow we’d gotten and admonished Leslie about how we were close to getting into an accelerated stall. I held my tongue but thought “isn’t it the instructors job to keep the student from killing us all?” The rest of the flight was kind of like that. Leslie doing a fair to poor job of flying and the instructor doing the same job of instructing. Thank God we were out of time after the last landing because if we weren’t I was going to get out and walk back. It was that bad.
When we got back the instructor told Leslie that he’d need at least one more flight to be fully checked out and seeing that we were out of time that I’d have to come back another time. Great, so I basically wasted my entire morning for nothing. Well, not for nothing. I did at least cross that instructor off my list of pilots I’ll ever fly with again.
As I mentioned last post I’ve taken it upon myself, after much pressure, to pursue my flight instructor rating so as to help eager young fledglings take wing. Or to put it into layman’s terms, scare myself silly as students with no experience and even less common sense try and see just how hard you have to hit a concrete runway to actually put a dent in it. Should be fun. But before I get to do that I first need to pass two extremely difficult written tests and an even more difficult FAA check ride. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the failure rate for pilots taking the check ride for the first time is right around 80%. Wonderful.
So with starry eyed optimism, a spring in my step, eager anticipation, and an almost childlike giddiness, (note, heavy sarcasm alert) I drove the hour and a half to the flight school to the learning. I’ve been paired up with another student who’s also trying to get his CFI rating named Leslie. Leslie is a twenty something young man from Belize, by way of Virginia, who has dreams of leaving the real world and becoming a professional pilot. He’s already secured a position as a flight instructor in Arizona in order to build up the 1500 hours of flight time required to obtain the coveted Airline Transport Pilot license but he first has to pass his check ride. And in order to pass his check ride he has to practice teaching the flight maneuvers, with an instructor, in an airplane, in the sky. And there’s the problem. Because, you see, Leslie has bad luck when it comes to weather. As I mentioned, Leslie is from Belize but lives in Virginia, and apparently there isn’t a suitable flight school in his area so for some reason he’s chosen to come up to the great white north to do his flight training. I don’t know if they have books about different climates where he comes from but it does have a tendency to get a might cold up here during the part of the year we call winter. Oh, and it snows sometimes too. Leslie told me that when he flew up here to get his multi-engine rating the weather was so bad it took him over a month to get it all done and so far he’s been trying to since December to get his CFI rating. Now that’s bad luck, and unfortunately it’s rubbing off on me because out of the last six days we were scheduled to fly together we’ve flown exactly none due to low clouds. Now, when I say low clouds I mean too low for the instructor, not for me. OK, one or two of those days the base of the clouds was under 1000 feet, not real scary but still too low to practice flight maneuvers. But for the last three days, this morning included, the base of the overcast has been 1500-2000 feet with good visibility. Um, doesn’t it say in the regulations that you need a minimum of 1500 feet in order to do aerobatics? And seeing that all we are doing is practicing simple, non-aerobatic maneuvers like turns around a point and S turns along a road couldn’t we, you know, go flying? Apparently not. Too low the instructor said, too scary. Let’s wait for the perfect day, sometime in June maybe. I may be exaggerating a bit on that last part but I’m starting to see why it’s taken so long for Leslie to get his ratings.
Post Update: After thinking about what I wrote about the decisions my flight instructor has made about not flying in what he considers to be “marginal” conditions I fear that I may have come off as just a bit harsh. Professional pilots and instructors have a duty to their passengers and students to make sound and safe go-no go calls that are in the best interests of safety. Just because they are no skill, non-hack, frady cats, who wouldn’t know good weather if it bit them in the………………..Hmmm. I’m not sure this is going in the direction I intended. I should probably take out my frustrations another way, maybe doing something constructive like studying for the written test. Maybe we can fly tomorrow.
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