Clear Air Turbulence

It’s the smack in the face that you don’t see coming that stings you the most.   When the day is clear and cloudless, the danger of being rocked by severe turbulence is the highest.   It’s called clear air turbulence, and it can make your insides tumble like a rack of billiard balls after the solid whack of a speeding cue ball with topspin.

Clear air turbulence makes you appreciate the paranoid folks who find danger where the reasonable person you think you are wouldn’t even look. The once ubiquitous bumper sticker that said “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t after you” should, I think, be followed with the motto “respect the paranoid.”

I know it isn’t fun being paranoid, which I can say as a charter member of the club, but it is certainly useful.   I don’t think I would trade it for anything approaching the opposite.   It is the excessive fear of danger that has probably kept me relatively safe for much of my life, albeit a life likely shortened by the accompanying unremitting anxiety. I would love to capture the vigilance without all that accompanying fear, but I don’t think life works that way.   It’s the fear that drives us, and the greater the fear, the more horsepower in that engine.

Turbulence is caused when masses of air moving at vastly different speeds collide with each other.   You don’t see it so much on cloudy days, because in order for clouds to form the air masses must be calm enough to contain the moisture within them.   Sometimes cirrus clouds—those wispy, mostly horizontal ones—are clues that there is likely to be turbulence around, but the worst of the turbulence occurs when the air masses are moving so quickly that the particulates that hang around the atmosphere are so dispersed that you can’t see them at all.

Clear air turbulence is a reminder that that which cannot be seen and that therefore can cause a shitload of trouble is all around us.   It could be an unrevealed secret, the elephant in the room as it were.   It could be the car that comes barreling through the red light out of nowhere; it could be a cancer diagnosis when you’re feeling just fine, thank you.

Not all surprises are bad, of course.   It’s just hard to think of any.   I have never, for example, received a letter in the mail alerting me to the fact that a distant relative has left me a lot of money.

Sometimes the mere fact of having been born with a sensitive nervous system can be mistaken for paranoia.   The line between just being extra-sensitive to one’s own and therefore another’s pain can lead to assuming that others feel the world the way you do.   Often they don’t, and when they don’t and you think they do they are going to call you paranoid.   They are wrong, of course.   Those of us who are extra-sensitive are not paranoid; the rest are just out to get us.

In a relationship, you know you are in trouble when you don’t know you’re in trouble.   The air gets thick with “Everything’s just fine, honey,” and then you know the volcano is likely to erupt.   Yes, the air gets still and calm right before the storm.   Better to have clouds in the sky, because when there are clouds you can see them and therefore you know where you are in relation to them.   Things are finer, for sure, when they are not fine, when there are clouds in the sky you can see and read.

I have believed for quite some time now that there are few things worse in life than not knowing where one stands.   I would like to know whether the affection you are showing is real and deserved, just as I would like to know if I am in the doghouse so I can at the very least hide in it until the invisible storm has passed.

For those of you stuck on the ground looking up at the sky, you might want to consider that if the skies are clear and blue there’s a lot more danger there than you think.   If you don’t see any big, puffy clouds, you might want to lose that naïve complacency of yours.   Get a grip.   There’s danger out there, just when you thought it was safe to go outside.

Ocean, Sky and Desert


Pilots seek the sky.   For some, it is where their solace resides. Not for me, though.

I became a pilot about the time I turned 50, so for the first half-century of my life I didn’t have the option of mounting an airplane and shooting into the blue to find comfort.   If there was comfort to be found there, I didn’t have the means to find it.

I could drive, however, and if I really wanted to get away from it all I could have driven myself to the nearby mountains. But I didn’t do that either, preferring to level myself at sea level.   I would walk along the beach for hours on end, typically at dusk after the stark California sun began its retreat.   Alone with my thoughts, the receptive sand beneath my feet and the soothing rhythm of the ocean waves sedated my nerves. I would just walk, and try less to find solutions than to let my thoughts emerge, as if some caged and reclusive solutions would emerge from their indolence if I could allow my body to ease up, to listen to its whispers rather than to think my way through the maze of pressured and tortured “what if’s?” that stultified me.

When the beach didn’t do the trick, there was the unforgiving Southern California desert, and in particular the Joshua Tree National Monument area near Palm Springs.  Exactly how the desert worked its magic was a mystery, but perhaps the invitation to death provided by its vast vacuity, knowing that every pathless path led to a singular absolute and assured ending rendered big decisions banal. If every place I could possibly wander led to death then any choice I could make would be just as hopeless as the next.

The ocean, sky, and desert are places we can go to soothe our aching souls, but still, they are just places. Although its benefits are many, relocation is rarely a panacea.   City dwellers may claim that they must leave the intricate web of distractions around them to find serenity in the simpler life that the country gives them.   Yet, life in the country for some can simply mean a swapping of one form of chaos with another.   It might be a relief to be out of cell phone range, to not have 118 channels of TV from which to choose, or hear the rumbling of the buses, trains and taxis outside your door; but soon enough the mosquitos will become noisome, the lack of air conditioning will propagate noxious body odors, the screen door slamming shut will shatter the peace, the raccoon will plunder the garbage, and the bursitis will act up when you think you are still capable of chopping wood.   But worst of all, that decision about taking the new job will still need to be made, the paperwork and the report will still need to get written, and the catalytic converter will need to get serviced, that is, if you have a car that has one.

The biggest problem with relocation therapy is that nerve-wracking tendency to carry ourselves with us when we move from one place to another. Whether strewn on a beach in Tahiti, sipping a latte at a café in the Marais, or nursing a local red wine in Rome, a simple, sarcastic comment from your partner can instantly wipe away any shred of numen the immediate environs may have loaned you.

Thoreau, best known for hanging out in a borrowed cabin in the woods, was also an accomplished traveller.   He wrote in his journal:   ”It matters not where or how far you travel—the farther commonly the worse—but how much alive you are.”   I would argue that while one can feel alive anywhere, the challenges of novelty that relocating offers can be an injection of vitality unto itself. The external world confronts us subtly or unabashedly with its array of colors, sounds, cruelty and aesthetic beauty. Finding ourselves crossing a reedy bridge over a deep chasm between mountains taunts us into the abyss; a sheer cliff begs us to lose ourselves in a slip off the edge.   Or, as the novel scenery helps to bridge the depths of our soul and psyche, we turn our aggressive impulses toward others: who might we gently nudge off the edge of the cliff, or who may choose to nudge us off the edge?

In 1975, on my first trip abroad at age 21, I was wandering through the streets of Verona just past dusk.   I lost track of where I was, and was feeling that pleasingly uncomfortable queasiness that over the years I have come to appreciate.   I looked up at a sign carved into a granite plate on the wall beside me.   It was a quote from the first act of Romeo and Juliet, which read:

O, Where is Romeo?

Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here; this is not Romeo, I am some other where.

 Shakespeare knew the feeling.   He knew that wherever we are, we are capable of being somewhere else at the same time.   My wife, in one of her moments of Zen, once told me that she thought that the reason I had so few memories of my childhood was that I wasn’t there at the time.   Perhaps it doesn’t matter at all where we are at any moment on the earth, and the only thing that truly matters is that wherever we are, we are present and alive.   I can’t help but believe, however, that sometimes finding the sky, a mountain, or an ocean to treat our senses to can help bring us back to ourselves.   Occasionally, it has done that for me.










Visibility Balls

R6BFcbnThere are a lot of ways to die as a pilot.   My favorite one is at a ripe old age, quietly in the midst of a good night’s sleep.

One way pilots come to their end is to get themselves and their airplanes wrapped up in power lines. Those nasty things can be pretty invisible, thin as they are, and although looking up at them from the ground you can see them against the contrast of the light sky, looking down at them from above they disappear into the background of the terrain.

There are large, bright orange balls that are occasionally attached to power lines in order to make the lines more visible to pilots.   I never knew what they were called until a friend of mine referred to them as “visibility balls.”   The term, you have to admit, has a ring to it, and in the hands of a poet I image it can be dangerous.

From the air, I really appreciate when I see these big balls surrounding wires.   From the ground, they are pretty ugly, but then so are the power lines they are meant to expose.   Ugly on ugly just makes more ugly, but I do appreciate the intention, which is beautiful.   I feel that way about a lot of ugly things with good intentions. Just don’t ask me to name them.

Visibility balls are considerate things, similar in effect to lighthouses for ships and beacons on tall buildings designed for the same purpose.   I am here, they announce, so please don’t bump into me.

In some ways, visibility balls are similar to tattoos, which I think are ultimately designed to say here I am, look at me.   I think even hidden tattoos serve the same purpose, but in that case they are merely being reserved for a specific set of onlookers.   The difference, I think, is that tattoos aren’t really designed to keep anyone safe, unless they are meant to frighten and keep bad guys away, or announce a political affiliation, as I imagine the swastika on Manson’s forehead was intended to do.

I like things designed to keep people safe, but they too can be annoying.   I don’t really care if the public bathroom floor is wet following a good mopping.   If I need a sign to tell me it’s wet then I don’t deserve to use it.   I do like signs telling me to slow down to 35 miles an hour when a curve is approaching, because that clearly indicates that I will need to slow down to 60. I find guardrails on winding mountain roads humorous, as if that would stop a car from tumbling down the side of the mountain. The sign that says “icy” by the side of the road near my house has been proclaiming that fact for 25 years, although I don’t recall a single day in the last 25 years when the road actually became icy.   The sign, by the way, is located a few yards from Thomas Aquinas College, a fact which has given me the inclination to stop alongside the road in the middle of the night and put periods or dashes after each letter, so the sign would read “I-C-Y”, which should be the primary purpose of the nearby college, especially one that emphasizes theology and philosophy.

I am sure I am not the only pilot who likes the idea of giant orange balls strung up high to keep from being caught up in a catastrophe.  The thing I can’t understand is where to find the giant orange men willing to sacrifice them.

Sierra Oscar Lima

There are good aviation movies, and great aviation movies, but very few bad ones.  The opening scene in the movie “Dark Blue World” is one of the best I have ever seen, consisting simply of a young aviator showing a female friend how to fly an airplane. It is simple and sweetly suggestive. The rest of the film is pretty spectacular as well, on my personal top 10 aviation list, and that opening scene, to quote Johnny Tillotson far out of context, is poetry in motion.

There are some films which sound great on paper but just don’t work on the screen.   Woody Allen’s film adaptation of the book “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex…” is an example of a film that is hilarious when you describe it, but when you see it in the theater it is almost intolerable, at least to me.

The worst aviation movie I have ever seen has a great premise.   It is called “Sierra Oscar Lima,” and the film’s dialog is a verbatim enactment of the last few minutes of several doomed flights, based on recovered cockpit voice recordings. (It is actually a film of a play.)  Given how much I love to study accidents, and just about anything aviation-related, I went out of my way to find and rent this film.   I was so excited about it that I thought I could show it as a fundraiser for a charity.   While I am a firm believer that truth is far stranger than fiction, and a whole lot more compelling, in this case the film was a sheer soporific. Think Benadryl overdose. The philosopher Hannah Arendt demonstrated the banality of evil, but it’s difficult for me to imagine the last few minutes of a doomed flight as even approaching banal.   But perhaps it is so.

Here’s the trivia point.   As a lover of most everything aviation, I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t get the title.  Sure, I know the phonetic alphabet, and I knew that “S.O.L” was an abbreviation; I just didn’t know for what.   When I discovered that it stood for “shit outta luck” it all made sense.   That’s what happens right before the final lights go out.

I occasionally hang out with a bunch of pilots, a fairly friendly lot, if a bit on the conceited side. If I am in a forgiving mood, and not too conceited myself, I forgive them their conceit because it takes a bit of hubris to fly airplanes.   The thing is, as much as I have hung out with pilots, I have never heard any of them say “Sierra Oscar Lima,” as in, “the poor fella’s tail fell off and was sierra oscar lima.” I have heard a lot of metaphors for, well, you know, biting the dust, going west, buying the farm, etc., but have never heard anyone say sierra oscar lima. (I understand the military have a similar phonetic abbreviation for dying– “tango uniform.” I couldn’t guess this one either, a fact of which I am proud.   It reportedly stands for “tits up,” which is I guess what happens when you’re finally laid to rest.)

I probably never heard “sierra oscar lima” because these days people are generally less worried about scatological language than in the past.   If you want to say someone’s shit out of luck, you would probably just say the person was shit out of luck.  No need to speak Yiddish so the kids won’t understand; these days they know more than you do.

There may, however, be other uses for sierra oscar lima worth exploring.   Let’s see now. Your drug-addicted, underage son asks to borrow the car.   No, that’s too hackneyed. Applying for a bank loan because you really need the money?   The loan officer cracks a slight grin and whispers, sierra oscar lima.   Oh, and how could I have forgotten this one?   Yes, you turn to your partner in bed…

I suppose there are hundreds, if not thousands, of solid uses for sierra oscar lima.   I’m just not sure the cute abbreviation is necessary these days when polite company itself is a rarity.   I don’t think I would know where to find polite company if I tried. If I did try, I guess I would be… you know, sierra oscar lima.




The Contrast

A few days ago I took my small, single-engine airplane on a very short flight from Santa Paula to Santa Monica.   I am realizing now, as I write this, that on my way back I probably hit two LA area airports in alphabetical order.   You didn’t need to know that, and I didn’t need to say it, but I just did and you read it, so it’s done now and behind you.   Just let it go.

If I flew direct, at the speed my airplane is capable of, I could have made the flight in 18 minutes from point to point.   But one rarely if ever truly flies direct, unless you are flying in a helicopter, because airplanes need to depart and arrive in a fixed direction, often requiring flying a pattern.   All told, the flight took me a half hour in each direction, which beats the 2 hours or more it would have taken me if I attempted to make the trip via LA freeways.

The reason I am bringing this up is because of the contrast between flying a couple of days ago and what I am doing at this very moment, which is flying as a passenger in the cabin of a United flight to Frankfurt, on my way to a conference in Krakow, Poland.   The view at 35,000 feet out the window is not that different than the view at 5500 feet, especially nowadays where humans are used to zooming in and out with the pinch of their fingers.   Up here, where the air is minus 62 degrees Fahrenheit, travelling with the help of the jet stream at 640 miles per hour over the ground, I had the strange sensation that all I had to do was sit back and pinch my fingers for the world to become a miniature moving map beneath me.

It’s daytime right now at this point on earth, and it’s quite cloudy out there, mostly cumulous clouds, but the earth below occasionally reveals itself, a built environment of concrete, steel and lumber.   It is remarkable what these human beavers have crafted onto the plains, nestled in the mountains and hung over the cliffs.   How industrious we critters are, how unashamed of what we have done to the miraculous topography of this planet.

I am on the second of three flights needed to get me to Krakow. I could have done it in two flights, but adding a leg made it less demanding on the bank account.   This flight will last about 10½ hours in the air, and all three, with layovers, will take about 18 hours.   That’s a lot of sitting, but I have done the long haul often enough that I have mastered seat yoga, or chair yoga as they call it in senior homes. It’s amazing what kind of a workout one can get while sitting and watching fuzzy movies you intentionally missed at your local theater.

I am now on Boeing’s triple-7, which for me is the equivalent of her majesty’s yacht, after rowing my little aeronautical kayak the 36 miles from Santa Paula to Santa Monica.   It’s really quite a thrill each time I do either one of them; I can’t help but marvel at the engineering masterpieces that emanate from the cortexes of wily dreamers intent on stretching human capabilities to its conceivable limits. I suspect I will not live long enough, or have enough lives, to get to ever fly one of these big birds, and sitting back here in the cabin is the best I will ever do.   That’s okay, because I kind of kicked the bucket list a few years back, and my stores of vitality have been nearly depleted by a few too many slings and arrows.

I have many challenges ahead of me in my little aeronautical kayak, and while I will be occupying a lot less square footage, at least I will be at the helm.   It’s a lot easier back here, being chauffeured and all, but when I get to where I am going I will have had little to do with it.   God willing, I will be home in a week or so, where my little airplane awaits me.   I will wrap my fist firmly and gently around the stick, tilt into the wind, slowly and confidently push the throttle to its limit, and nudge its nose into the blue.   I don’t know yet where I will be headed, maybe just take her for a spin around the neighborhood.   There will be no pinching of my fingers to make the trees bigger or smaller, but I will use the stick to make the elevator do that. The movie flickering out the windscreen may not be nearly as exciting as “Mission: Impossible” or “Kingsman”, but it will be a whole lot more realistic.   And while I won’t be landing in Europe, I will be landing just a stone’s throw from home. It’s all about the contrast, and that’s what makes it good.






Flying on Wheels

There is a scene in the small but wonderful film, “The Way, Way Back” in which the 14-year-old lead character discovers a bicycle in the garage of his mother’s new boyfriend’s summer cottage where he has been trapped for what promises to be a torturous summer.   With a spectacular blast of background music he breaks out of the garage on the diminutive bike and rides away with a new sense of freedom.

The scene struck a deep chord for me, because it brought back memories of my childhood, when, each day after school to escape the constant shouting and threatening that surrounded me in my garden apartment in Queens, I would ride as far away as I could on my bike until I became just a bit lost, and then eventually find my way home.   I remember never really wanting to go home, and trying to calculate ways to run away, but as a young child I of course didn’t have the wherewithal.

I remember the sense of freedom I had when riding my bike, the sense of movement and the rush of air over my face, and even a more acute sense of smell. When I left Queens at age 10 we moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, and lived on a street located on a small hill. At age 10 the hill wasn’t so small, and I distinctly remember getting on my bike at the top of the hill, raising both hands in the air, and closing my eyes as the bike picked up speed on the way down. I could even turn the corner at the bottom of the hill with no hands and no sight, just the sensation of the bike beneath me and the air blowing over my chest and face.

That habit ended when one day I took the turn at the bottom of the hill and hit a parked car. I was thrown first into the handles, which knocked the wind out of me, then tossed onto the trunk of the car to be stopped by the rear window. The car was dented, and I was bruised, but nothing else broke.

In high school in California I learned to drive, and that was my greatest ticket to freedom. I would work as many jobs as I could during high school just to pay for gas and I would drive my ‘65 Barracuda (which I bought used for $500.) until the gas was half gone, then turn around and see if I could make it home before I ran out. I didn’t think of it at the time, but that is what I did as a young child on the bicycle.

My cousin Peter flies an open cockpit Raven, which he took me for a ride in when I visited him in the Philippines. With an open cockpit and the propeller pushing from behind us, it was the closest thing to flying without benefit of an airplane I had ever experienced. The wind in his face served as the airspeed indicator, and I couldn’t help flashing back to riding my bicycle downhill with my eyes closed as a child.

I am not a thrill-seeker, but when the thrill seeks me I won’t resist it. I had a couple of close calls when flying the rickety Cessna 150 during my training, close enough to insist that when I could afford to I would buy the safest airplane my wallet could handle.   Eventually I did just that, a Diamond DA-40, which had the best safety record in the industry. When I bought it, I made sure to add the optional extra large fuel tanks so that I could go as far as I could without having to land, just as I did as a child when I mounted my bicycle and rode it as far away from home as my legs could take me, or drove my Barracuda as far as I could on the most gas I could afford before having to turn back. Opening the throttle to the stop as I roll down the runway, I could swear the engine sounds like a full orchestra, generating the lift needed to take me away from the earth, with all of its constant shouting and conflict.

You Better Press the Button

I can’t imagine it happens too often, but a few years back the captain of a commercial airliner died mid-flight.   An announcement came over the PA: “If there’s a pilot on the airplane, please press the flight attendant call button.”   A vacationing Air Force pilot sitting in the cabin glanced over to his wife.

She turned to him and said, “You better press the button.”

A flight attendant escorted the Air Force pilot to the cockpit, where the pilot took the captain’s vacated seat. (None of the accounts mentioned where they put the expired captain.) The co-pilot who was flying the airplane asked the Air Force pilot what equipment he flew, and then she said, “Ok, you’ve got the com and follow my instructions.”

I have never been in the armed services, a fact of which I am not particularly proud, but I am fairly certain that military service teaches or at least reinforces one’s ability to take orders.   I also think that excelling in taking orders generally makes one better at giving them, although like most things, this gets complicated and only works sometimes.

The Air Force pilot who “stood in” for the expired pilot on an unfamiliar airplane would have been used to giving orders. But in this case, although he was a captain in the Air Force, the less experienced airliner co-pilot remained the pilot in command throughout the flight.   Although she was feted afterward for her performance under pressure, it should be no surprise that she did her job and did it well. When interviewed afterward, the Air Force pilot said the commercial co-pilot confidently, professionally and calmly flew the airplane—so much so he wished he could go flying with her again under better circumstances.

It all went smoothly.   The experienced Air Force pilot wasn’t familiar with the airplane, and the co-pilot of the commercial jet knew the airplane well.   It was “her airplane,” and she was in charge.   Following the incident, there were a couple of editorials that appeared in aviation magazines that questioned whether the fact that the co-pilot was honored for her alacrity was a subtle form of sexism.   If she were a male co-pilot would she have been praised, or would the seamless handling of the stressful situation be simply assumed?

I don’t know, because I tend to see sexism hiding under most rocks.   And yet, having your captain expire next to you instantly doubles the workload and adds just a bit of psychic stress to the moment.   It would be a troubling situation for anyone regardless of gender.   But still….

When I read about the incident, I was not only impressed with the co-pilot’s performance under unusual pressure, but I was also impressed with the Air Force captain’s, who placed himself in an unfamiliar cockpit in a stressful situation, although all he really did was handle the radios, which was second-nature to him.

What made the situation work so effectively, though, was that each pilot recognized the abilities and the roles of the other.   The Air Force captain, undoubtedly used to being in charge, happily followed the co-pilot’s orders.   It all reinforced my view that the best leaders tend to be good followers, and the best followers also tend to make good leaders.

As I mentioned in other posts, the attributes of good leaders are the same as the attributes of effective followers: flexibility, humility, commitment to the organization, the ability to think outside of the box and consult and collaborate with others.     It’s important to remember this, the next time a pilot expires in the seat next to you.



CAVU the Dog

People sometimes name their dogs based on their interests, and pilots are no exception.   There is a dog named Spinner at my local airport, which is a great name for a dog, and a really great name for the thing at the front of an airplane which spins the propeller.

Notam, Pitot, Aileron, Rotate, Roger, Rotax, Strut, Metar, Nimbus, Tarmac, Tango, Echo, Beacon, Pilot, Amelia, Atis, Lycoming, Mooney, Nordo, Piper and her little sister Cub are also great aviation dog names.

And speaking of dogs from the same litter, McDonnell and Douglas, Boeing and Airbus, Orville and Wilbur, and Roger and Wilco are all great combinations.

I have never seen or heard of a dog named Cavu, and it is a bit awkward but the fact that it stands for “Ceiling and visibility unlimited” makes me want to wag my tail in excitement.   “It’s a CAVU day,” one is supposed to say, although I don’t know anyone pretentious enough to have said it.   Most pilots are pretty straightforward folks, and simply say, “Wow, looks beautiful up there. Not a cloud in the sky.”   It really means the same thing.

Ceiling is the distance between the ground and the bottoms of the clouds, which is always confusing to newbies because one would likely think that because the word is a reference to clouds, the ceiling would be the tops.   But, as someone once said, “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor,” so flexibility in word usage applies here as in elsewhere.   The ceiling is really a reference to how high one can go and stay in visual conditions, so when there’s not a cloud in the sky the ceiling is only limited by how high your airplane can take you.

Visibility is how far you can see in front of you, assuming you are flying straight and level.   Ceiling is vertical, and visibility is horizontal, and in a three dimensional world everything else is just a combination of the two; so when your ceiling and visibility are unlimited it essentially means you are free.   I have never heard it said, but I imagine it has been said many times when the divorce is final: “I’m CAVU now.” That is, of course, assuming that’s a place you would like to be.

“Ceiling and visibility unlimited” implies not only freedom but also its close cousin hope.   I once met a girl in high school named Hope, but I never had a chance. (This is true.) If only she could see me today!   I would probably have more hope with Chance, but that’s entirely another story.

Speaking of CAVU tbe dog, nearly every dog I have ever owned was adopted by a local shelter, which in my humble opinion is the only place one should ever acquire a dog.   Humans were meant to breed other humans, I think, and if there isn’t something biblical about that there probably should be.   Responsible humans should find their pets at their local shelter or humane society, and grant them CAVU lives.

None of my dogs have had an aviation-related moniker, which is fine with me.   I liked our dog names just fine: Frankie, Grace, Winsome Fox (Winnie), Stella, and Grushenka.   Okay, the last one was quite challenging, but my son, whose bachelor’s thesis was on the Brothers Karamazov, acquired Grushenka at the time and named her.   The name in Russian means “little pear,” but in Karamazov she was referred to as “the queen of all infernal women.” Apparently she had a good heart though, and so did our sweet German Shepherd.   Her good heart never did give out, although her immune system finally failed her and sent her west.

I fear our very aged Stella is heading rapidly in the same direction. It is inevitable, and the only place where ceiling and visibility are truly unlimited.







Follow Me

imagesYou’re familiar with those cars or trucks with big signs on the back of them that say “Follow Me” or “Pilot Car” on the back that guide you through one-way detours during highway construction.   Pilots of aircraft landing at small to mid-size airports have them as well, usually offered up in order to entice you to taxi your airplane to the best location on the field where you can rest your weary bones and buy fuel from the same people who provide the friendly pilot car.

Landing at an unfamiliar airport can be disorienting, even if you study the airport layout ahead of time.   A two-dimensional diagram, and even a Google Earth snapshot from above, doesn’t resemble the view from the runway once you are rolling along.   Until the advent of readily-available GPS-guided navigation tools, pilots could be easily confused by which taxiway leads to which desired location.   At large airports, taxiing to the ramp could be more complex than the route you took to get there.

If there’s a tower and you know where you want to go, you can always ask for help. Simply say you are “unfamiliar” and ask for “progressive taxi instructions” and the ground controller will guide your every turn.   It takes precious time, so if they’re busy it might be a bit stressful, but usually it’s no problem and they’re more than happy to provide the service.

The “Follow Me” vehicle—often a converted golf cart or ATV, is provided by the local FBO to make sure you don’t accidentally park in someone else’s spot and maybe even buy someone else’s fuel.   It’s a wonderful service, because by the time you have landed you’re tired of making executive decisions and want to relax and following someone who will guide you to the right parking spot takes ta bit of worry out of your arrival.

There is however, a small “gotcha.”   As in all relationships, there is an invisible umbilical cord connecting the pilots of the two vehicles. Such a dependency requires a modicum of trust.   How do I know where I am being taken?   If I had landed at a small airport in crime-ridden Northern Mexico would I wonder where the “follow me” truck was leading me—especially if the sign was written in English?   Even in a mid-size airport in California, would I trust the “follow me” car was leading me to the FBO I intended to go to, or instead the one with the highest fuel and tie-down prices?

Woody Allen once quipped that the reason he spent so many years on his therapist’s couch was because he was breast-fed from falsies.   I confess to you right now that the thirty seconds or so I have spent out of my life focused on that image was a waste of precious time, but there is a point to be made here.   Each of us are born with certain ingredients in place that then get nurtured or otherwise modified by our experiences, and those are the ingredients that determine the extent to which we allow ourselves to trust that the pilot car is not going to lead us to a remote section of the airport where we will be roughed up by ruffians waiting in the bushes or even worse, pay more for fuel than we need to.

But the primary ingredients in building a trusting relationship are simply time and experience.   If we land at the same airport repeatedly and the “follow me” car always takes us to the right place, we are likely to trust them the next time. Trust is not faith though, and too much of it can be dangerous.   When the “follow me” car begins to take you to a dark corner of the airport with a bunch of grungy machine-gun toting folks lollying about it might be better to put on the brakes and get on the radio and make sure you’re tuned to the right frequency.

As a pilot, one never knows who is driving the “follow me” car.   One rarely if ever thinks about it.   One rarely cares.   It is what might be considered a low-risk situation.   The worst that is likely to happen is that you will park your airplane, shut it down, walk to the office and say, “whoops, this is the wrong place.”   That has never happened to me, and likely won’t.   The consequences of following the wrong leader in that situation are not terrible.

You know where this is going, don’t you?   Sometimes we just don’t know where we are being taken until we get there.   Maybe we always don’t know where we are going until we get there.   But our job as pilots in command is to fly our airplanes until we are finally docked and shut down.   We could, however awkward or painful, veer off and break the invisible umbilical cord and taxi ourselves right back to the runway.

Trust, when we have it, is a beautiful thing.   I do experience a sigh of relief when I see the “follow me” sign in front of me.   I am done navigating my way to the airport, and now all I need to do is relax and trust that my credit card is thick enough to contain the cost of the fuel about to be poured into my tanks and oh yes, that my bladder is strong enough to make it to the rest room.   Good thing I wasn’t breast fed from falsies.   I wasn’t breast fed at all, which, I guess, explains everything.
















The Check Ride

Every two years, those who possess a private pilot’s certificate in their wallet are required by the FAA to take a flight review, or what is colloquially called a “check ride.”   It’s not a big deal, not nearly as onerous as taking your initial flight with an examiner. In fact, it can really be whatever you make it, so long as you find an instructor willing to sign you off.

The requirements are simple.   You merely jump in your plane with a certified instructor, fly for an hour or more, and then chat about it on the ground to eat up the required two hours total time.   And make sure you log the time, so if Big Brother looks you can show him you did it. Easy peasy.

Some of the more diligent pilots decide to make it a meaningful experience, and use the check ride the way it was intended, which is to make sure that their skills have not deteriorated, or better yet, as an opportunity to learn new tricks. (One has the option of gaining a new skill, called a rating, in lieu of the check ride.)   The more diligent pilots approach their biennial flight review by choosing an instructor who will confront their weaknesses, or, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “a friend who will stab you in the front.”   They may decide to repeat the steps of their original training, or if confident about their fundamental skills, practice more difficult skills such as slow flight, spins and stall recovery, holding patterns, or tricky instrument approaches.

Most pilots I know don’t particularly like the check ride, because most pilots I know don’t like to do anything anyone else tells them they have to do.   I guess that’s true for most of us, but as a general rule I think pilots have it worse.   I am not sure why that is, but it probably has something to do with the machismo required to pack your body into a tin container and launch yourself off the surface of the planet while relying on the whims of a reciprocating engine and your own ability to manage the thing in such a way as to not spin mightily into the strawberry fields forever below.

I don’t know anyone who has ever “failed” a check ride, but I do know some folks who decide that failure is possible just so they can feel good about passing.   It’s not that by winning they will have bragging rights, at least not among pilots, but some people just like to make themselves feel good, and winning a game, even an easy one, usually feels better than losing (at least for some of us).

The check ride becomes a contest with one’s self, which in psychological lingo can be called sublimation, or in everyday language, the ability to turn lemons into lemonade. These pilots understand that like any other endeavor, there is great satisfaction to be achieved by feeling competent at something, and the route to greater competence is practicing increasingly complex or difficult skills.   They set up their own challenge within the check ride.   This time around, they say to an instructor friend, I want to be better at stall recovery, or some such thing.   The possibilities of course are fairly endless, as aviation is a capacious sport– a science, I like to think, big enough for the most capable of pilots to call themselves artists. If you shrug at this notion, watch an aerobatics display.

Those of us like myself who are fear-dominated often create challenges where they don’t need to be just so that we can channel our fear productively.   Fear can be a rather annoying companion, so I have always believed that because it never really leaves my side I might as well get to know it and hopefully befriend it.   The check ride, in fact, is not unlike some of the people I call friends; some of them annoy me and have distasteful attributes but I find their presence somehow edifying or comforting.   Flying holding patterns, and particularly entering them (which way?) is one of those distasteful parts of flying, so for me at least it would be a good idea to add them into my check ride.   But not this time around.

This time around, I have decided, I am going to focus not only on reviewing basic skills, but on callouts.   Callouts are exactly what they sound like.   The pilot or co-pilot says certain things out loud, sort of like a checklist, announcing to him or herself or anyone who might be eavesdropping what is going on in the moment, a verbal reminder that signals the need to do something or more likely, that things are going the way they ought to be going so that there is no need to do anything rash.   My favorite callout, as an example, occurs when the airplane is rolling down the runway and you reach enough speed for the airspeed indicator to come on line and you or the co-pilot shouts “airspeed alive!”   I don’t know if any pilots out there have a little voice in their head whispering “and so am I!”   I certainly don’t.

Callouts are challenging to me simply because it is an area that was completely neglected in my training, so I never had an opportunity to learn or practice them.   They aren’t difficult, nor are they even necessary, but it is a little thing I can get better at.

I am writing these words right now on New Year’s Eve, and it strikes me that the custom of making New Year’s resolutions has something in common with the check ride.   We recognize a weakness or three in ourselves, and vow to do better.   I have never liked resolutions, thinking that they are just invitations to failure, and I find failing increasingly tiresome, but perhaps if I think instead that resolutions are merely setups for life’s ongoing check ride I will do better.   As long as no one makes me do it.