Just a few shots of my trip out to Jackson Hole Wyoming the other day. With all the snow we’ve been getting, flying the northern half of the country is like flying over Siberia.
Pilot crashes an incredible 148 times in a row during one simulator session! Has license revoked and is now looking for the number of that truck driving school he saw on TV.
What do you do with a few days off from the tough and demanding job of flying rich people around the country in a kickass jet? Why go over to your friend’s house and spend the weekend flying the simulator he built in his basement of course.
Way back in the day when I was just starting to work on getting my instrument rating I’d go over to my friend’s house and the two of us would spend hours and hours flying practice instrument approaches on his old Amega computer. It had a tiny black and white screen, a super basic joystick, and graphics that were just slightly more advanced than stick figures. But it worked well for practicing flying on instruments and navigation.
Over the years he’s continued to improve on his first system and now he’s got something that’s simply amazing sitting in his basement. It’s got dual controls complete with rudder pedals, a center console with radios, gear and flap levers, and a full instrument panel, and a multi engine power quadrant. It has a huge database that allows you fly approaches anywhere in the world. He also has it hooked up to the internet so you can fly in the actual real time weather conditions at whatever airport you’re landing at. It’s amazing.
He also has a helicopter set up that he invented that he says is about 90 percent accurate. And he should know seeing that he spent 35 years flying helicopters in the Army.
We started out the session flying CRJ midsize passenger jets. You start out at the ramp, get pushed back, start engines, get clearance, taxi to the runway, and take off. It’s all very realistic and even has an internet connection so you can fly in actual real time weather conditions. But flying jets in and out of big airports is what I do all the time so I moved onto flying the UH-60 Blackhawk, and F-18 Super Hornet. Which is where the trouble began.
You it’s hard enough to attempt and hover a helicopter or land a high performance jet on an aircraft carrier when you’re in peak condition. It’s even more difficult (dang near impossible) after a significant amount of adult beverages. Lots of fun though. Good thing I didn’t have to pay for all that twisted metal.
HUNTINGTON- Retired accountant and area dipshit, Michael Dimpleton, recently built a new home next door to Huntington Municipal Airport, established in 1947. Yet, despite his prior awareness of the airport and its function in the world, Dimpleton is completely outraged at what he calls “all that damn ruckus” coming from above. According to the airport manager, he has made at least 20 calls to them since moving into the property three days ago demanding they do something about the noise. In a failed attempt to bring media spotlight to his bullshit plight, Dimpleton reached out to Aviation Daily.
We told him to go f**k himself.
So there we were, heading home in the Great White Hope after a Quick overnight in Texas. My co-captain (I’ll call him Viking because he’s from Norway and looks nothing like a Viking) and I had dropped our passengers off already and were making the short 15 minute flight back to our home base. I could already taste the beer.
Then Minneapolis ATC decided to throw a wrench in our plans.
“Citation November 4 Yankee, the runways at your destination are closed. State intentions.”
CRAP. The weather had pretty shitty over the entire area for most of the day due to moderate to heavy snow and low ceilings. But we’d gotten into the last airport just fine and hadn’t anticipated any problems on our last leg of the day. I told ATC to standby while the Viking reduced power to conserve fuel. We both noticed that ATC had said that the “runways” were closed not the airport, which led us to believe that it might be something temporary.
When we asked the controller if he knew how long the runways might be closed he said he’d check. Something he should’ve done in the first place. “The tower said they should be open in 20 minutes. They’re experiencing heavy at the moment and are currently working on snow removal.”
What followed was a frustrating and confusing back and forth between us, ATC the the airports control tower. first they said we couldn’t land and should head to our alternate airport. Then Tower said that if we slowed down the plows should be out of our way in time for us to land. Then ATC said we had to go to our alternate agan. ARGGGGGG!
Then they put us in a holding pattern on the approach while they figured it all out. Not a big deal because we had a little extra fuel, but tons, so get it sorted out hey?
Finally tower came back and told us that the plows had cleared us a path 60 feet wide and would that do? It would indeed. The man in the tower then proceeded to tell us that this was all very not normal. That they could not guarantee us their standard level of breaking action, runway width, wing clearance on the snow banks and, you know, overall safety. And if we decided to land against everyone’s better judgment it would “be at your own risk!” DUNN DUNN DUNN! I actually had to say “Cleared to land at our own risk.” when he gave me the landing clearance. Apparently they use this phrase whenever the runway isn’t cleared up to normal FAA standards but some dumb, cocky pilot (but I repeat myself) thinks he can pull it off anyway.
One last thing, would you like to wait for the trucks to make a pass to spread some sand for the gription that’s in it? We would not.
The approach and landing were uneventful. We picked up some ice in the clouds and broke with dozens of feet to spare and when tower inquired as to how the braking action was the Viking’s response was “POOR.” I guess it was a little slippery after all.
Heading up the fjord towards Narsarsuaq Greenland in a Navajo Chieftain enroute to Singapore in 2014.
As I said yesterday experience is a great teacher. Well, I didn’t actually say that, but I should have. Back when I was a young lad with dreams of being an airline pilot there was one thing that I needed more than anything else to obtain my goal. Multi engine time. Multi engine time is the holy grail of flight time because most airliners have multiple engines. (Multiple means 2 for you non-pilot types) The problem with getting multi engine time is that it’s very expensive. I mean like VERY expensive. Like $125 dollars an hour expensive, And those are 1987 dollars mind you. And in order to get an kind of job you need at least 200 hours of multi time, minimum. So that works out to about $25,000, minimum. So two friends and I had a brilliant idea. We’d buy a light twin engine airplane, fly the crap out of it, then sell it. Simple.
So that’s how I ended being the proud one third owner of a Piper Twin Comanche. 2270 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal.
She was a sweet little bird. Small, fast, good fuel burn, and two! engines! I was in love. All I needed was a multi engine license and I’d be all set.
So I found an instructor and began learning the ways of the twin. After just a few hours of training my instructor had this great idea. As long as we needed to spend some time training in the plane, why don’t we fly down to Ft. Rucker Alabama and visit my partner who was in Army flight school. My instructor said that he’d even chip in for gas. We’d both get to log not only multi engine but cross country time as well because, like us, he was shooting for that job where you get to wear a bus driver hat, and every hour in your log book is literally worth it’s weight in gold.
We’d been in the air for 3 hours or so when it was time to stop for fuel. Seeing the weather was beautiful along the entire route we hadn’t pre planned an airport to stop at. The instructor said we’d fly until we either needed gas or a restroom break then pick an airport on the map and make a pit stop. We looked at the map, picked a small airport that was along our route and punched its identifier into the Loran navigation system we’d just had installed in the plan.
The Loran system was the precursor to the GPS and was considered state of the art in those days. It was based on a number of transmitters on the ground which triangulated your position with relative accuracy. It also had a database in it so once we put in the XZY airport it told us that it was just 15 miles ahead. Magic! I started our descent and after just a few minutes the instructor pointed out an airport just ahead. But something was wrong. According to the loran we were still 5 miles away from the XYZ airport. I pointed this out to the instructor who looked at the old fashioned paper map and told me that it had to be the right airport because there was only one in the area.
I wasn’t convinced. The runway was long but rough looking. It was next to what looked like a concrete plant and I couldn’t see any kind of fbo building, fuel tanks or ramp. I expressed my doubts as to our exact location to the instructor who told me not to worry. Why it’s the only one for miles and miles. How could we be wrong? I wasn’t convinced so to shut me up he called the airport on the unicom frequency and asked if they’re open and had fuel. “Sure are hon, come on in.” came the reply in a syrupy sweet southern accent. The smug look on the instructors face said it all. “Never question your betters boy.”
Having been put in my place I continued the approach but the closer I got to the runway the less sure I was that we were in the right place. It didn’t look like any airport I’d ever seen. Nothing was mowed, I still couldn’t see any buildings apart from the concrete factory, and the runway was the worst looking piece of crap I’d ever seen. It was a mosaic of cracks and appeared to be mostly weeds.
“Are you sure this is the right airport?” I asked again. “Positive, keep going.”
As I brought the plane down on short final I could see that the weeds on the runway were really thick and high.
ME: “YOU’RE SURE?”
FAILPROOF INSTRUCTOR: “YES”
As I flaired to land I completely lost sight of the runway the weeds were so thick and when we touched down I was shocked to see that the weeds were higher than the wings and that we were actually mowing a path down the runway. At this point I should’ve went to full power and gotten the hell out of there but all I did was blindly follow my instructors instructions as he craned his head up trying to see over the weeds to find the fuel pumps.
We finally found some sort of ramp (still thick with weeds) and shut down. Then the instructor got on the radio again and asked where the fuel pumps were. This time the southern bell sounded confused. “Why it’s right next to the main building darlin. It’s right off the runway you can’t miss it.” The two of us looked around but didn’t see anything that looked like, well, anything.
About that time a man in a beat up old pickup truck drove across the runway from the concrete plant and pulled up to us. “You boys need some help?” (insert another thick southern accent here) “No sir, we’re just here to get some fuel.” It was at this point that we were informed that A: The runway that we’d landed on was a closed WWII training strip. 2. No one had landed on it in ove40 years. And C. The airport that we were looking for was indeed still 5 miles away.
To say that I was pissed would be an understatement. Not only at the instructor for bringing us down on that closed runway that could have easily damaged the plane, but at myself for not sticking to my guns when I knew I was right. I was also super pissed because mowing the path through weeds had sandblasted the paint off my new propellers and we were going to have to do it again just to take off.
We did manage to get airborne again and just 5 miles farther down the road there was the nicest little airport that a pilot could ask for. Beautifully mowed green grass surrounding a nice long runway in perfect condition.
I let the instructor tell the woman behind the counter just where we’d been for the last half hour.
In my last post I made mention of the fact that just because the pilot your flying with has a lot more hours than you do doesn’t mean that they’re a better pilot than you are. for example I’d take a Naval Aviator with only 350 hours over a pimply faced flight civilian flight instructor with 700 hours. OK, they both could have acne problems but one of them is qualified to land a Super Hornet on an aircraft carrier, in the middle of the ocean, in dogshit weather, at night, And the other one cancels today’s lesson because the weather could drop down to marginal VFR. (Maybe an unfair characterization of flight instructors but I had to come up with something) It also doesn’t mean that if you have a disagreement while flying the pilot with more hours or who’s designated “Captain” is always right. Like I mentioned I’ve seen this first hand on numerous occasions.
For example, once I was flying with a pilot with much more flight time than I had we had a difference of opinion as to our exact location. I’ll call that pilot Shirley, because that’s her name. Shirley owned one of the jump planes at the skydiving center I jumped at and she’d flown me up to 10,000 feet literally hundreds of times in her Cessna 182. I’d seen her land in strong crosswinds, fly formation loads with other planes, and takeoff and land at our short, unlit dirt landing strip at night. I considered her a good pilot.
I also started riding back and forth with her when she flew the 182 from her hanger in Minneapolis out to the drop zone in Wisconsin on weekends because I’d started taking flying lessons and took all the experience I could get. One day I was flying back to Minneapolis with her when we ran into some crappy weather. The base of the clouds forced us lower and lower while the visibility got downright scary. This was way back in the days before the GPS was invented but never to worry, we a nice 4 lane freeway to follow home. You know the drill, she was flying IFR, I Follow Roads or scud running. I wasn’t particularly concerned because she flew this route every weekend and, I assumed, she knew it like the back of her hand. But as we got about to the halfway point in the short thirty mile flight I noticed that she was flying directly at a cluster of particularly tall TV antennas called the Shoreview Towers which stretched 1438 feet into the air and had a lot of very long and difficult to see guy wires suspending them. Something you definitely wanted to give a wide berth to. Now mind you I couldn’t actually see the towers at that point because the visibility had dropped to under a mile (yeah, I know. We definitely shouldn’t have been there in the first place) but I grew up not far from there and drove past them all the time.
So at this point I politely brought up the fact that she had us on a course to, you know, hit said towers. And would she, kind of like, please not? “Put your mind at ease young fellow.” she said, “I just flew this route just this morning and I know for a fact that those towers are on the other side of the freeway.” knowing I was right, I pressed the issue for a minute or two but she would not be swayed. (Possibly some female stubbornness if you want to be sexest about it) Lacking any other option other than to start a fight for the controls of the plane I just sat back with my arms crossed, waiting to be proven right. Not really, instead I stared intently out the windscreen looking for the towers to appear. TOWER!!! I yelled, pointing unnecessarily at red and white TV antenna that suddenly appeared directly in front of us. To her credit Shirley immediately cranked the 182 over in a steep left bank and missed the guy wires by at least 100 yards. A miss is as good as a mile I guess. After resuming our course on the opposite side of the freeway she acknowledged her mistake saying that she was confused by the fact that in the morning she’d been going east but on the way home she was going west so the towers were on the other side of the road.
So, yeah, autopilots. One of aviation’s greatest achievements. Properly used and designed they can relive pilot workload and greatly enhance safety by a bunch of percent. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
There have been a few recent crashes that are directly caused by over automation and poor flight crew training. Basically, something went wrong with a very complicated system and the dudes up front didn’t have enough time to figure out what to do before it was too late. The Lion Air crash in Indonesia last month is the latest example. In that crash one faulty angle of attack sensor tricked the the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, or MCAS (autopilot) into thinking the plane was about to stall so it put the plane into a dive which the crew wasn’t able to pull out of. 189 dead. Apparently this had happened to the exact same plane just the day before and that crew had remembered their training and switched the MCAS off and recovered using good old fashioned stick and rudder skills. Unfortunately stick and rudder skills are not only in short supply these days but in the airlines they are actually discouraged. “The autopilot is much more efficient and safe than you flawed humans so don’t touch the controls!”
I think this leads to a bad mindset in too many flight decks these days. Take for example the crash of an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 at San Francisco in July 2013, which killed three and injured 187. The crew had inadvertently disengaged the auto throttle and basically allowed the plane to land short of the runway and slam into the seawall all because the pilots couldn’t figure out why they were sinking too fast. WHO FREAKING CARES WHY? GRAB THE CONTROLES, HIT THE BIG RED BUTTON (autopilot disconnect) AND FLY THE GODDAMN AIRPLANE!!!! But stick and rudder skills are in short supply these days.
We are trained to use and rely on the autopilot. When I was getting my type rating in the Citation 650 last fall the hardest thing I had to learn was how to use the box. “The box” is the generic term for the flight management system/navigation/autopilot/do everything system that controls the aircraft. If your going to do something with the aircraft you put it in the box. So I happened to have one of the instructors as my copilot while I was undergoing training in the full motion simulator one day. I thought that this was a good thing because the copilot is the guy who runs the box. All I had to do was watch the autopilot do it’s thing and takeover when the evaluator told me to. No problem, if there’s one thing I can do is hand fly an airplane.
We were doing a simulated single engine ILS approach and as expected we were still in the clouds when we arrived at the minimum descent altitude. Can’t see the ground, gotta go around. I applied full power and hit the go around button on the throttles which makes the command bars set you up for a climbing attitude up and away from the runway. Now flying the command bars is super easy. There are two purple bars on the screen in front of you (HSI) and all you do is put the two yellow bars that represent the nose of your aircraft, right under the purple ones. Easy. So easy that when hand flying and approach in the clouds it seems like cheating. Just follow the bars. On a missed approach you hit the go around button, follow the bars to get away from the runway and then ask your copilot to “Nav you up” which means hit the Navigation button which will direct you the next point in the missed approach procedure. Just follow the command bars and you’ve got nothing to worry about.
So when I told my instructor/copilot to “Nav me up” I was surprised to see the command bars direct a descending turn to the left instead of up and right. Like a good pilot I followed the command bars but asked the instructor “Is this right?” The instructor, who had his head down entering something in the box, just said “Yep, just follow the bars.” At this point I was in trouble because I’d let two things happen. Number one: I’d let the fact that my copilot was an instructor who flew in this simulator every day give me a false sense of security. I assumed that he could do no wrong. And two: I’d stopped being the pilot in command and become an autopilot made of meat, just blindly following the command bars so that when the command bars pointed down into the dirt I followed. For about two seconds until the pilot finally showed up. “That’s not right.” I said as I finally did the right thing as pulled up and away from the ground. The instructor started to disagree when he finally looked up just as Bitching Betty started singing. TERRAIN!…..TERRAIN!…..PULL UP!…..PULL UP! That’s not something a pilot want to hear, even in the simulator. The instructor said something along the lines of “Oops!” and frantically put the correct (I hoped) info into the box.
The point of the story is that all the best technology in the world is only as good as what’s being put into it. If it receives faulty data it gives faulty results weather from the human working the box or a broken sensor. Garbage in, garbage out. Imagine if I had been flying a real jet instead of a full motion simulator. And Imagine if I’d engaged the autopilot immediately after initiating the go around instead of hand flying it. Would I have been as diligent in monitoring the flight instruments? Or would I have in a sense “sat back” ? comfortable that the autopilot “had it” At that point I might even have looked down to watch what my copilot was doing on the box as the jet plunged at eh ground at over 200 knots. It was a good lesson for me. One that I’d learned before but am forced to relearn every few years. Even though the pilot you’re flying with is WAY more experienced than you they can still be wrong!
But it’s a whole other story when you can’t disconnect the autopilot, or don’t remember how. I can’t think of anything more terrifying than being at the controls of an airplane that won’t respond to your commands because it thinks it knows how to fly better than you.
Now Open: The Only FAA Registered Ice Runway
Winter flying in Wisconsin can have its challenges. One of them can be getting the plane stopped when the runway is covered with a layer of ice. Remember, the landing isn’t over until you’re of the runway in the manner in which you intended. You might remember the Falcon jet I told you about just last month.
So why in the ever loving world would anyone land on a sheet of ice, with almost no breaking action at all, on purpose? BECAUSE IT’S FUN! That’s why.
I’ve landed on a frozen lake a couple of times and it’s a hoot. It can be challenging with a stiff crosswind though but that just makes it more fun! If you pull it off that is. Things can get exciting if you’re sliding sideways towards the snow piled up on the side of the runway. The runways I’ve landed on were unofficial. Just a strip cleared off by somebody with a plow on his truck. (Usually in front of a bar) But these guys have taken things to a whole other level.
Read more about the Alton Bay ice runway here. Alton Bay ice runway
4:15 came early today. And cold. Now normally I like it when we here in the northland get our yearly cold snap. 50 below zero? Bring it on! 65 Below windchill? Nothing more than a cool breeze. I grew up in Minnesota and sub zero temps are a badge of honor. But this morning? Not so much. It probably had something to do with the heater on the old truck not much of anything. Damn near froze my feet off driving to the airport. And 30 below wasn’t the lowest number I saw on the ride in. I saw 34 below but by then my fingers were so cold there was no way I was going to take my gloves off.
The rest of the morning wasn’t too bad. We preflighted the Great White Hope (Cessna Citation 650) while it was still nestled in it’s nice warm heated hanger, figured out the fuel order and went back to drinking coffee while the lines guys did the incredible job of pulling the plane out, fueling it up and then standing there while us pilot guys sat in the nice warm cockpit and fire it up. We tried to hurry but there are only so many shortcuts you can do when getting a jet ready to taxi. Those guys really earned their pay that day. Johnny boy and I had a really busy day ahead of us. 7 legs, a record for both of us. Normally we do 3 or 4 tops, but hey, it is what it is. First pick up some Finnish and Swedish businessmen in eastern Wisconsin and fly them to central Wisconsin. When it’s that cold everything’s different. When we took off before dawn there was ice fog covering the airport but as soon as the sun came up everything was crisp and sharp. The visibility was unlimited and the air smooth as glass.
By the time we landed on our second leg of the morning the temperature had jumped up to a balmy minus 29. Damn near a heat wave.
While we waited at the FBO for our passengers to tour a pulp mill Johnny boy and I helped ourselves to some homemade banana bread and watched a drama being played out as the crew at the airport tried to get the fuel truck, crew car, and two of the worker’s cars started. They were all unsuccessful because it hasn’t been this cold up in about 20 years and kids these days just don’t have the experience. Why back in my day when it was this cold if you didn’t get up at least once or twice in the middle of the night and start your car or you weren’t going anywhere. That was back when cars had carburetors but nowadays cars usually will start no matter how cold it gets. That is until it hits 30 below, then all bets are off.
We sat on the ground for 4 hours. Long enough to be concerned about whether or not we could get get the engines started after sitting in those cold temps for so long. So we played rock paper scissors for the honor of going out to the plane at the halfway point to warm up the engines for 15 minutes or so. Johnny boy did a fantastic job. Next stop Minneapolis international to drop off the passengers, then back to home base to pick up 2 more passengers and some of our company’s employees who’s flights out of Minneapolis had been canceled due to the cold weather. They were going down to Atlanta to help our sister airport deal with the massive amount of private jet traffic that the Super Bowl attracks. Seems that a lot of rich people like to go to that sort of thing. Who knew? We dropped off our teammates in Atlanta, then dropped off our last two passengers at two different airport in southern Florida. What a day. 7 takeoff and landings, 1675 nautical miles and a 104 degree temperature swing. from 34 below to 70 above. But wait, our day wasn’t over yet!
The hotel shuttle got into an accident on it’s way to pick us up. Then the Uber driver that replaced him went to the airport’s main terminal while we were on the other side and no amount of explaining could get him over to where we were. Cancel the Uber and get a taxi to the hotel. What? can’t find our reservation? We booked our rooms at the other Hilton Garden Inn? No problem, just switch us to here please. No rooms available? Crap. How far is the other Hilton? 30 minutes away? Perfect, just what we we needed. another Uber to another Hilton. The first one had literally a dozen restaurants surrounding it. The one we actually booked? Freaking ghost town, nothing closer than 3/4 of a mile. Fine, we both needed the exercise anyway. But it all worked out in the end. We found a lounge/ Italian restaurant (heavy on the lounge) and I finally had a beer in front of me at 10:03 PM. Seeing that I’d left the house at 5:15 AM that had been one long and crazy day. But the Gods had one more treat for us. It was Karaoke night! We were treated to southern Florida’s best local talent and we all sang along to John Denver and Billy Joel and just had a blast. And even Johnny boy got up to sing. And I thought you could only have great flying adventures ferry flying.