As you might have heard, up here in the great white up we’ve had, how shall I put it? A shit ton of snow this winter! Sorry for my french but damn it’s deep!
So can you guess what happens when the temps finally start to rise dear readers? That’s right, solids magically turn into liquids. And when there’s too much of the liquid stuff laying around things tends to get messy.
This is the current state of my skydiving school. I say current because the snow has just started to melt and it has nowhere to go so I wouldn’t be surprised if the water level continued to rise.
I went out there yesterday and spent the better part of 2 hours putting gear (parachutes) boxes of paperwork, and anything else I could save up on packing tables and counters. So far all we’ve lost is some first jump certificates and waivers but all the carpeting will have to come out and I’m sure a lot (or all) of the sheetrock will have to be torn out. Not a great way to start the season but on the positive side I now have a float plane!
Oxygen, it can come in right handy when you’re trying to make your brain work well enough to do complicated things. Like fly an airplane. Problem is, airplanes perform best when they are up at altitude where oxygen can be in short supply. What to do?
Well, you can either make it by pressurizing the cockpit with compressed air from the engines, like in a jet, or bring it with you. Now flying in pressurized aircraft is a breeze, (see what I did there?) All you have to do is set the field elevation of your destination in the little window and forget it. Easy peasy.
Now if you’re not lucky enough to be flying a pressurized aircraft but still want to enjoy the magic of flight above 12,500 feet you’re gonna need to bring you oxygen with you in a more primitive manner. Like in a bucket. Which is essentially what a portable oxygen tank is.
You can get the O2 from a portable bottle one of two ways. You can use a cannula, which is basically a tube that runs under your nose with two small prongs that stick up into your nostrils or a full blown oxygen mask. The cannula work on most pilots up to around 18,000 feet or so. After that a lot of pilots need to switch the mask type in order to get enough O2 into their system.
I use the term “most pilots” because every pilot develops signs of hypoxia (lack of oxygen) at different altitudes for different reasons. If you’re old, out of shape, a heavy smoker, and heavy drinker, (cargo pilot) you might require O2 at a lower level than say, a young, marathon runner who reads to the blind in his spare time. (present day US Air Force pilot, with a pretty scarf and pressed flight suit)
Another big factor is acclimation. How much time do you spend at altitude not on oxygen? Remember many men have climber Mt. Everest without oxygen because they spend a month getting their bodies used to working in a high altitude environment.
Which is how come I have a particularly good tolerance for flight at high altitude. I work “up there” almost every day as a pilot and more importantly as a professional skydiver. Every summer I spend 6 days a week riding in a plane up to 14,000 feet, strapping some big 250 guy to my chest, stand up, walk down the aisle of the plane and jump out. All without oxygen. And that’s getting into freefall. That part can be quite demanding, believe me. Do that 15 times a day, every day all summer long and your high altitude tolerance will go up too.
What difference does it make you ask dear reader? “Aren’t pilots supposed to be on oxygen any time their above 12,500 for more than 30 minutes?” You might ask? Well, technically, yes. But it’s one thing to be pleasure flying in the good old USA, where you can get your portable O2 tank filled up at almost any airport you stop at. It quite to ferry a plane across the planet on a tight time schedule where oxygen refills can be hard if not impossible to find.
And because someday you might really need an hour or so of oxygen to, say, clear a really nasty thunderstorm or an area of unforecasted icing, you’d be wise to save a little O2 “just in case”
So why not just fly under 12,500′ when not in fear for your life? Lot’s of reasons. Especially when flying over the ocean in small single engined aircraft. You see when you’re ferrying a single, or any small aircraft for that matter, you’ll want to be as high as possible for a number of reasons.
Number 1. Better performance. Unless the high altitude winds are in your face you’ll get better range out of your plane if you’re up high, say 14,000-18,000 feet, because when flying across the ocean you never know when you’ll need that extra hour of endurance.
Number 2. Better radio reception. Back in the old pre GPS days (yes, I’m that old, I made 7 or 8 solo Atlantic crossings using nothing but a compass. Just like Lindberg.) the higher you were the farther out you could pick up the radio NDB beacon in the Azores. And that was the big thing back before GPS. Because once you were out over open ocean you really had no way of knowing what your position was. Oh, you got a winds aloft report before you left but if it was wrong you could be blown miles off course, and when you’re trying to find a small island in the middle of the ocean the farther out you pick up the beacon the better.
Number 3. More time to fix a problem and call for help. If you’re cruising along and your engine quits, you’ve got a lot longer to get out a position report and get ready to ditch if you start at 18,000 feet than if you start out at 8,000′.
So what’s does a real life ferry pilot to do when he wants to fly at high altitudes over the ocean but only has a limited supply of oxygen? Well I can’t speak from personal experience due to the whole self incriminating thing but I do know this one ferry pilot really well and here’s what he told he does. It turns out that this pilot has a really good tolerance for flying at high altitudes without supplemental Oxygen. He told me the trick to keeping his wits about him is to be really still in the cockpit. No excess movement. And if I, I mean he, get a little light headed or winded just a few hits on the old Oxygen bottle and he feels right as rain. In fact he’s done practical experiments using a sensor on his finger that measures the O2 level in his blood. It is truly remarkable how a few breaths of oxygen will bring the levels from the low 70s back up to levels.
And according to this unnamed ferry pilot this method can make a portable oxygen bottle go a long way. Apparently, I’ve been told, and you can’t prove anything.
One of the perks of my new jet job is the ability to have my wife hop on an airliner and join me whenever I fly to someplace nice and have to stay for a few days. The company is often hired to fly someone who wants to spend a week in places like Miami, Phoenix, or Las Vegas and then be flown home. And because the hourly cost of flying the jet is so high it’s often cheaper to leave the plane and crew there rather than have them fly home empty and then come back a week later to bring them home.
What makes it a nice cheap vacation is that the company is already paying for the hotel room, so all it costs us is her plane ticket. And usually we stay at Hilton hotels which has the added benefit of free breakfast for 2 because I’m a Hilton Honors member. Heck, the company even gives me per diem. It all adds up to a pretty cheap vacation.
But doing this can have it’s risks because the company can’t always guarantee us that we will stay at that location for the entire time we planned. Sometimes if the plane is going to sit for close to a week my boss will try and find fill in work for us lazy pilots to do. So instead of sitting by the pool for a week drinking margaritas the company might subcontract us out to one or two different charter companies who’ll fly the crap out of us until it’s time to bring our original client back home. And if I’ve flown my wife down to join me she might be drinking alone. Oh, and we will have to pay for her hotel room. So it’s not always a sure thing.
But sometimes my boss can give me an “almost” guarantee that once we land we will stay put for the entire trip.
Which led to a dilemma last week when I looked at the upcoming flight schedule and saw 2 trips that would be fun to fly my wife down to. There was a 5 day trip to Las Vegas that would be kind of fun, I like Vegas. And there was a 7 day trip to the Cayman Islands! And I LOVE the Cayman Islands!
And it turns out that none of the other pilots even wanted to Cayman Island trip because they are boring people. Losers. But the boss was dragging his feet about weather or not the plane would stay put for the week or because the hotels there are outrageously expensive and it might be cheaper to fly the plane back to the US rather than put the two pilots up for that amount of time.
But I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen. It’s just too expensive to pay for the all the landing fees and time on the plane just to get a cheaper hotel room. But I wasn’t positive, and to make the decision harder was the price of the ticket to get my wife down there. $1000! Oof. Hate to book that flight and then have the trip fall apart.
On the other hand the Vegas trip was solid. The plane wasn’t going to move, period. And the tickets to Vegas were WAY cheaper. But I really really really wanted to go to the Cayman Islands!
But the longer we waited the more expensive the Cayman Islands tickets got and I finally couldn’t stand it any longer and told them to put me on the Vegas trip. Argggg. A five day trip in Sin City with the wife would still be fun. I guess. Not much Scuba diving in the desert though.
I pouted for two days over that decision, especially after one of the pilots who got picked for the Island trip told me that the boss finally decided that the plane and crew would stay on the island for the entire week and would be staying at a really expensive resort. Double Arggg.
I was really kicking myself. We could’ve had a full weeks vacation in the Cayman Islands for two, all expenses paid, for $1000. Did I say Arggggg before? I did? Well, still Arggggg.
I didn’t make me feel any better when that pilot sent me this picture.
His text said-” I bet you don’t have you don’t have this view in Las Vegas.” Jerk
But I felt a whole lot better when I got his next text the next morning.
“Our tropical trip didn’t last long. We’re on our way home due to a passenger family emergency. Good thing you didn’t fly your wife down.”
They spent less than 24 hours in the Caymans. Bummer for them but a close call for us. Because if I’d flown my wife down she’d be stuck there by herself and the cost of the resort would be on us not the company. That would have made for an expensive and lonely trip. Sometimes you get lucky. Now it’s time go lose some money on the Vegas strip. Unless my luck holds.
Warning! Warning! Winter storm TAYLOR is approaching! Expect 5 to 10 inches of SNOW!!! Argggg! For the love of God Flee!
You don’t have to tell me twice. I’m outta here. But seriously whoever came up with the idea of naming winter storms before they happen? Back in the day (makes me sound so old) they named them after they happened. Like the Halloween blizzard of 1991. Now THAT was a blizzard! It’s just stupid to name them because half the time nothing happens, just a little snow, no big deal, we live in Wisconsin people, it happens almost every year, deal with it.
Of course in this case I’m actually fleeing. Well not actually fleeing, flying. I’ve got a trip in the jet to Las vegas that was supposed to leave tomorrow but because of the “storm” we’re leaving a day early. OK by me. Just means another day of vacation in Vegas for me and the misses because I’m flying her down commercially to join me whilst I spend 5 days on the company dime waiting for the clients to do whatever it is that people do in Sin City. I’m sure we’ll find something to do to pass the time.
Last winter My wife and I decided that we’d had enough of winter and hopped into my beloved 1960 Beech Queen Air “Black Betty” for a little road trip. First stop was Denver to pick up Supergirl (daughter) Then down to San Diego for to visit my uncle Kerry (namesake)and his family.
It was a great trip. Black Betty purred like a kitten (400 really big kittens per side) Handled icing conditions and heavy snow like a champ and got us down and back in record time. (not sure what record I’m referring to)
The two highlights to the trip was Supergirl flying us across the Grand Canyon at sunset and landing at Sedona.
The day finally came. Marcio’s first single engine ocean crossing. And let me tell you it was no picnic. First it was almost impossible to get the big guy into the survival suit he rented, even though it was size “JUMBO” Then once we squeezed the Brazilian toothpaste back into the tube I had to help get him into the tiny Cirrus cabin. It didn’t take long for him to realize that if he fully wearing the suite he A. Wouldn’t be able to fly, run the radio, navigate, or do just about anything. Basically an uncomfortable passenger with a better than average chance of dying. And 2. He’d lose a lot of weight on that leg because the thick neoprene suit was hot as balls.
Normally when I fly single engine pistons over a cold ocean environment I fly with the suit on but only around my waist. That way I’m a lot more comfortable and able to do things. Like fly an airplane. If I need to ditch all I have to do is put my arms in the sleeves and zip up the front. I practice it in every plane I ferry to make sure I can do the maneuver in the space I have in that particular plane. It’s usually tight and sometimes kind of difficult which is one of the reasons I fly as high as I can in order to give me as much time as possible to get set to ditch.
So I told Marcio to try my methould. (Jeeze, just getting his arms out of the suit was an ordeal.) Once he was stripped down to his waist he climbed into the front right of the Cirrus (another ordeal) closed the door and tried to simulate getting the suit all the way on in mid-flight.
Well. I won’t try and describe all the contortions, grunts and groans that that went into Marcio’s attempt get to get his arms into the neoprene sleeves but suffice it to say the key word in this sentence is attempt. After the “put your suit on in the cockpit” experiment failed miserably Marcio decided to fly with one arm in the suit. That way he’d be half way to getting his survival suit on. And if I could fly at 30,000 feet he might even have time to get it zipped up.
After coming up with that mediocre plan and not being able to think of anything else we needed to do that might delay or otherwise give us an excuse to not go, we went. The takeoff was just like every other ocean crossing takeoff. “Does the engine sound funny?” “What’s that smell? Does it smell electrical?” “Did you remember to check the oil?” “WHAT AM I FORGETTING???????!!!!!” The fear of the unknown can drive you crazy sometimes. I had to remember that I’d been doing this for 25 years at the time. This was Marcio’s first.
The crossing from Wick Scotland to Reykjavik Iceland is about 650 nautical miles and is the safest of the North Atlantic legs for a few reasons. First of all about halfway across is an airport at the Faroe islands that a pilot in trouble could divert to.( Kind of handy) Then there’s the fact that there’s good radio coverage along the entire route. (Agin handy in the event of trouble. You can yell for help and someone will hear you.) But last and most important is the rescue services that are available. Both scotland and Iceland have a fantastic Coast Guard to rely on in case of ditching. And with the Faroe islands in the middle there’s a good chance that you’ll be in range of helicopter rescue. Helicopters, good. Helicopters, fast. Boats, bad. Boats slow.
We climbed up to 24,000 feet in the turbocharged Cirrus set the power to long range cruise, sat back and got comfortable for the easy 4 hour flight. The plane would go a lot faster than the 165 knots we were cruising at but would burn a lot more fuel. Fuel that we might need if we ran into trouble. As we got closer to Iceland if everything was looking good with the weather and winds aloft we’d probably bump the power up in order to get to the bar quicker.
After nearly getting hauled off to the Tower of London the night before Marcio and I pointed the Cirrus north towards Scotland, our last stop before taking on the North Atlantic. As we got closer to the ocean crossing Marcio got more and more nervous, with good reason.
Flying the North Atlantic, or any ocean for that matter, in a single engine piston is nothing to sneeze at. There’s a trail of aluminum sitting at the bottom of the sea along the ocean crossing routes that will attest to that fact. And every one of those planes was flown by a pilot who thought he could make it.
But in Marcio’s case he had extra reasons to be scared. Number one was that he hadn’t flown anything but airliners and business jets in many years and just getting into a small plane scared him. (and he barely fit into the Cirrus anyway) Number two was that we were heavy. With three adult men (make that three and a half with Marcio) our bags, survival gear, camera gera, and full fuel, the Cirrus was pretty heavily loaded down. I didn’t do a weight and balance because I didn’t really want to know just how much. Madness you say? Not so says I. Almost any airplane can fly at weights far over its certified max gross weight. How do I know this? Because back in my early days of ferry flying the FAA allowed planes being ferried over the ocean to fly 25% over max gross weight and with the center of gravity 2 inches of aft of the rearward limit. You just have to know how to fly a plane in that configuration. which is why they took out the waiver for the aft CG. Too many pilots got too slow and crashed. When flying a plane over max weight you have to keep your speed up and fly smooooooth. It’s that simple.
Oh, and Marcio had one more reason to be scared of the upcoming crossing. The Cirrus was running like shit. Ever since we’d picked the plane up in Munich we’d been fighting the planes tendency to run rough at low altitudes. Especially when reducing power in the descent.
I tried everything. Leaner mixture, richer mixture, boost pump on, boost pump off. I even resorted to reading the manual! No help there. The engine ran fine at altitude and on the ground but having it cough and sputter during an approach was……..disconcerting.
The German mechanics in Munich couldn’t find anything wrong and gave me that look that mechanics love to give pilots. the one that says “Are you sure you know what your doing?” We had lots of theories as to why it ran rough but in the end it came down to, did the engine die completely? No? Then off you go. Have a nice trip. Fine, what could possibly go wrong?
The flight from southern England up to Wick Scotland was nice though. It’s a rare day that you can see the Scottish highlands like this.
When we got to Wick Marcio was flying from the left seat. I’d been giving him more takeoffs and landings, trying to get him comfortable with the little Cirrus. Being a jet pilot he set up for landing WAY out over the water. Typical pattern for a jet but I like to be closer to the runway in a piston in case something goes wrong. Which was exactly when the engine started running rough again.
And while I was trying different mixture and boost pump settings I suggested (in no uncertain terms) that maybe he should, you know, point us at the nearest point of land maybe? Please? He didn’t disagree.
I managed to get the engine smoothed out and Marcio’s landing was acceptable. I think he was just as happy to be able pull out a smooth landing in the Cirrus as he was to getting down safely.
We put the plane in the hanger and I did an oil change while Marcio did an interview for the camera. Big shot.