This Blog’s Title

In the many years I have been writing this blog, no one has pointed out that its title, “Clear for Takeoff,” is a misnomer.  Frankly, I thought I would be busted early on, because people in the aviation world like to be know-it-alls.  Trying to come up with the title, I thought it made sense to use something pilots hear in their headsets just before departing the earth.  But controllers don’t actually say “clear for takeoff” (though for years I did think that was what they were saying).  Instead, they say “cleared for takeoff,” prefaced by your airplane’s identifier.  I am not certain of the grammar of it, because they are both sentence fragments, spoken undoubtedly with the assumption that the first half of the sentence is extraneous.   

In my headset, before nearly every flight at a towered airport, I hear the words: “Diamond Star One Romeo Alpha, Cleared for Takeoff.”  It’s my cue to look for traffic, advance the throttle, roll past the runway hold short line, turn to the center line, angle my ailerons into the wind, tease the rudder petals back and forth to awaken my feet, check that the flaps are set correctly and glance at the heading indicator, all within a few seconds, release the brakes and advance the throttle gently (but firmly) to the firewall.  

This is the thrill that is paired, as Pavlov would have us say, with the words “cleared for takeoff.”   If I were wearing my Garmin watch, I’m sure it would show a quick increase in heartrate as the old heart muscle flutters in anticipation, like a dog lifting her head and opening her eyes wide when she hears, “let’s take a walk!”

But “cleared for takeoff” as a title was someone else’s blog, I think, at least at the time this one came to fruition.   And while I knew full well that I was violating any sense of accuracy, I did like the sound of “clear for takeoff,” as if the infinitive form of the word clear connoted something slightly more spiritual.   Not at all a nod to Scientology, mind you, where going “clear” has implications of transcendence, as well as a significant capital expenditure.   More like the allegorical lyric in reggae time:  I can see clearly now; the rain has gone.

There are, of course, a host of other phrases pilots are accustomed to hearing on nearly every flight.   Just as the heart twitters in excitement to hear the words “cleared for takeoff,” there is an incipient serenity, accompanied by an unwitting exhalation, when a pilot hears the words “clear to land.”   Yup, you guessed it.  I seldom if ever hear the parallel “cleared to land.”   Maybe I have, and it just sounds like “clear to land.”  I don’t think so, though.  Why it is exactly that I am cleared for takeoff but am short two letters on landing I don’t know.    (Maybe there’s a physics principle having to do with losing letters in proportion to fuel depletion.)  

On nearly every flight in which you are talking to controllers at all (there is no requirement that you do if you are flying visually in certain airspace), you will inevitably hear the 3-word phrase “frequency change approved.”   That, I imagine, might also be a great blog title, and probably someone has used it already, but I am at a coffee shop and too lazy to get up and get the internet code, so I will probably never know.  

I am going to tell you something about those three words, “frequency change approved,” because I already wrote it and for now it’s right below these words on the screen.   But the additional four paragraphs make this post too long to be readable in the short amount of time we all have these days to read anything, given how computers and Sesame Street and post-modernism has melted our brains.

So perhaps next week I’ll share those paragraphs with you, but presently I will pretend I am an air traffic controller and I have some say with what you do with your precious time, and tell you, somewhat wistfully and without entirely feigned kindness, you’re “cleared for the option.”

The Raven Over our Shoulders

images-3I recently read an accident report in which a pilot lost power on the rollout, and then when he heard the engine surge back to life, resumed his takeoff.   Just after leaving the ground, the pilot retracted the landing gear, the engine quit again and the pilot died attempting to make the 180-degree turn back to the airport.

In a matter of a very few seconds, the pilot had some important decisions to make.  If he had made the decision to abort the takeoff the first time his engine lost power, he would likely be alive enough today to have learned that his fuel was contaminated with water.   But perhaps buoyed by the engines roaring back to life, he decided instead to climb out.   That was his first bad decision.   The second bad decision was to retract his landing gear before reaching the end of the runway.   The third was his attempt to turn around rather than find a place to land in front of him.   That was the one that sealed his fate.

I don’t fault the pilot for making the decisions he made.   We all make them, even the most experienced pilots.   But I suspect that once he heard his engine quit as he was advancing down the runway, he may have found himself struggling to manage his fear.   We will never know if the pilot panicked, thus preventing him from thinking clearly, or if he calmly made the decisions he thought were the most rational, or most likely, something in between.   But if it is fair to say that what killed him was a series of bad decisions, then I think it is also likely that (especially given his instructors’ statements that he had been a thorough and safe pilot) managing fear is a prime suspect in what may have led to those decisions.

There, I suspect, but for the grace of God go all of us.   I fear all sorts of things, from germs to failure to success.   But I am nothing if not tenacious, and I have learned over the years to try to welcome fear the way Abraham Lincoln is said to have approached his enemies.   While some have said that he borrowed the line from a Roman Emperor, when an elderly woman chastised him for not calling Southerners irreconcilable enemies who must be destroyed, Lincoln is reported to have said, “Why, madam– do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Making friends with our fears is the way to master them.  But mastery of our fears does not mean that we eradicate them—it just means that they begin to work for us as opposed to the other way around.   I often think about fear as Carlos Castaneda’s raven of death, which constantly flew just behind his shoulder.  Death cannot be run from.  It will assuredly outfly me so running away from it is a pointless endeavor.  Instead, while I often fail, I know my job is to welcome it into the house, feed it, get to know it.   If we blindly advance the throttle on takeoff without fear of engine failure, it is more likely to take us by surprise and potentially overwhelm our decision-making ability.

The Annual

imagesI returned home from Saigon last week with my airplane’s annual inspection nearly completed.   A backup battery was replaced, along with a set of three new tires, bearings greased, airbags and their control device replaced, and a half-broken door release handle fixed.

Owners of airplanes typically have mixed feelings over Big Brother’s requirement that we subject our airplanes to annual inspections.   The negative side of the equation is obvious: inspections cost a lot of “aviation units,” a term invented by pilots who prefer not to disclose exact dollar amounts to their spouses.

On the other hand, the benefits are equally as obvious.   The fact that the airplanes flying above us are thoroughly inspected by licensed mechanics at least once a year undoubtedly makes those flying inside them and those on the ground below them a lot safer.

When Wednesday rolled around, and my calendar reminded me that I had to fast from 9pm that night until my appointment with my physician the next morning, I couldn’t help but smile at the coincidence that both my airplane and my body were being checked out simultaneously.    The FAA requires that pilots over age 40 have a physical every two years, but since I turned 50 I have been getting my own physical annually.

I am not sure that my physician, who is about my age, enjoys poking into my orifices nearly as much as I enjoy looking under the cowling of my beautiful Diamond airplane.   I do hope, and am more than reasonably certain, that he knows a lot more about the internal workings of human bodies than I know about internal combustion engines.   Fortunately, just as one doesn’t need to know how a car engine works to be a good driver, one doesn’t need to know much about the inner workings of an airplane to be a skilled pilot.

Along with the annual, a pre-flight inspection is done routinely by all pilots, even those flying big birds, before every flight.   They are, in effect, largely scaled-down versions of the annual inspection.  I was once told that 85% of accidents could have been prevented by an adequate pre-flight inspection.   I don’t know if that number is accurate, but it is a very high number.

I can’t imagine that 85% of diseases could be prevented by daily self-inspections.  But even if the odds are reversed, and only 15% of diseases could be prevented by routine checks, it is probably still a good idea.   Women are encouraged to check their breasts every day, because the earlier one catches any kind of cancer the better the odds of survival.   We brush our teeth every day, not just for cosmetic purposes, but because the buildup of bacteria in the gums can lead to the heart and other vital organs.   Fair skinned lads such as myself would be wise to check their skin regularly as well, on the lookout for early signs of melanomas.

I suspect the most important tool in conducting an annual inspection that a mechanic has in her tool shed is also the least expensive tool: the checklist.   The mechanic runs through a series of items that are required to be dismantled and inspected based on the make, model and vintage of the airplane.   A good physical examination does the same thing.   The trained physician runs through a series of inspections based on a mental checklist learned through experience, in order to not miss something important.

Requiring that airplanes receive annual inspections by licensed aircraft mechanics is undoubtedly one of the reasons why flying small airplanes has gotten safer over the years.   While pilots are required to have physical exams to maintain their flying privileges, fortunately, our government does not require any such thing for the rest of us.    But maybe a peak beneath the hood every once in a while is a good idea.


imagesFlying my Diamond DA40 home from a conference in Las Vegas with two colleagues on board not long ago was uneventful, until I came to the formidable mountains that comprise part of the Transverse Range.    While most of the flight from Las Vegas is over the wide Mojave Desert, my home airport in Santa Paula is tucked in a valley on the other side of those mountains.  The tops of the mountains were obscured completely by a line of clouds that extended as far as I could see in both sideways directions, and the tops of the clouds were higher than my normally-aspirated airplane could climb.

For an instrument-rated pilot this would present no problem, but I have yet to get that rating, so for me it was a challenge.   It wouldn’t have been difficult, mind you, but it would have been entirely illegal, and certainly unsafe for me and the passengers on board given my lack of “actual” (as opposed to virtual) time in the clouds.

After looking in both directions, it became clear that I immediately needed to alter my flight plan and make a diversion.   I disconnected the autopilot, and started a slow, wide turn to the left, with the intention of doing a wide circle while I figured out my next move.   I informed the passengers that there might be a delay getting home, and then called ATC to let them know that I was altering my planned route due to the line of clouds in front of me.    The composed voice came back with the query, “Are you instrument capable and qualified?”

I answered quickly that I was capable but not qualified, which means I have the appropriate instruments on board but was not certified.   The business-like voice simply said, “OK.”

I was considering diverting right or left to see if there was a clearing in the line of clouds that I couldn’t see yet, and what airports lay in wait below or just behind, and what the best place might be to spend the night, when the controller came back on the radio.   “One Romeo Alpha, it looks like there’s an opening in the clouds about 10 miles to the north.”

At about 150 miles an hour, that’s a pretty short diversion, so I thanked the controller and headed north.   Sure enough, there was a nice gap in the clouds that took me over the mountains near Santa Barbara, and I was able to turn south and head down the coast to my home airport with only a short delay.

Most pilots hate diversions.  Diversions make those aboard late, and usually create additional expense in fuel, time and lodging.  But diversions are a necessary part of getting there safely.

I would like to believe that having to divert is one of the more wonderful things about flying.   It forces us down a road that, if not less traveled, is certainly less anticipated.   And it forces us to live in the moment, a skill I have never been very good at, managing to immerse myself in the nostalgia of yesteryears, or the expectations and fantasies of life downstream.

There is a wonderful story that has been circulating the internet for many years now about how being a parent of a child with autism is like expecting to take a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland.  The point of the story is that if you live your life mourning the fact that you aren’t in Italy you’ll end up missing the beauty of Holland.

I do think that people who are good at accepting life’s diversions do so partly because they don’t allow themselves to get too attached to outcomes.   Lao Tzu said it best when he said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

I hate surprises, but I am convinced that surprise is where the adventure begins.  If the original goal, the runway on which you intend to land, is suddenly unsafe, then it’s time to open the throttle and find another one.

When I think of that simple diversion required of me to keep out of the clouds, I think of some small things I might have done differently.   It forced me to think under pressure, and later to review those decisions and therefore rehearse doing it better the next time.   But we all arrived safely, and enjoyed extraordinary scenery along the way that we would not have seen otherwise: wispy clouds teasing the mountain ridges, the beautiful Pacific Ocean and the California Coast, and the rolling foothills accompanying us home.




The Value of Getting Lost

imagesWhenever I set foot in a new place, my favorite thing to do is to set out walking.  Day or night, the objective is clear; walk just far enough that I feel lost, turn around and try to find my way back.   It is, after all, in the midst of feeling lost that discovery is possible.    Humans seek the comfort of familiarity, but are also novelty-seeking organisms, which is why solitary confinement is so punishing.  Traveling familiar routes, by definition, reduces the novelty in our lives.   It will certainly help us get to where we are aiming to go, but as Lao Tzu said, “If you don’t change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”

In a beautiful piece in a recent aviation magazine, Peter Garrison wrote about “The Importance of Being Lost.”   In it, he details some of the history of navigating at night and the navigation systems, or lack thereof, that attempted to prevent pilots flying at night from getting lost.

Back in the early 1920’s, when the postal service attempted to deliver mail via airplane at night, rural towns had no electricity to light them up and “airways” consisted of either bonfires set by farmers and eventually a series of electric beacons.   A lot of pilots got lost, and many of them crashed as they were often flying in near total darkness.

With the recent advent of GPS, it is nearly impossible to get lost even if you tried.  Garrison wrote beautifully that GPS “makes us at once infants and gods.  Observers and observed, we watch from on high as our icon, a digital metaphor of self-awareness, creeps across the map.  With GPS, there is no longer such a thing as ‘lost.’  Navigation, a great and noble art whose traditions stretch back into prehistory, has been replaced by a computer game… We are much better off, but we have also forfeited something: an adventurous life in which anxiety and relief alternated like the beating of a heart.”

He cites Beryl Markham, who wrote in 1942 about her fear of what the future may hold for pilots:   By then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to a familiarity with labeled buttons, and in whose minds the knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of the weather will be as extraneous as passing fiction.

Back in the seventies, an American Airlines training pilot coined the term “children of the magenta” to refer to pilots trained in the new avionics of the time.  Computerized flight management systems, autopilots and now GPS paint a magenta line on a screen, guiding pilots to their destination, so all pilots need do to get where they want to go is simply follow the magenta line.  (By the way, you can see that prescient training session on Vimeo if you have 25 minutes to spare; just look up “children of the magenta.”)  The trainer warned that the more dependent pilots become on their sophisticated avionics, the more they are going to lose their basic “stick and rudder” skills.   This was decades before the Air France 447 flight, the Colgan crash, and possibly the Asiana crash in SFO were implicated in pilots’ degraded “hand-flying” skills.

Perhaps we are all “children of the magenta.”  We live in worlds in which the technology we use throughout the day is comprised of systems we may at best theoretically understand but could never begin to produce, even if given the materials to do so.  We have become dependent on our smart phones, our ATM machines, our computers, our cars, and even the electricity that powers nearly all of our gadgets.  I am certainly not a Luddite, and tend to be the first person on my block to play with whatever new gadget becomes available, but I do agree that sometimes there really is value in getting lost and testing our basic skills, knowledge, and imagination to find our way home. Our hearts are muscles, after all, and it is the fear that accompanies getting lost that gives them the jolt needed to kick into gear, the jolt of fear that ends in relief as we hopefully find our way home.

Miso Aviator

imagesI’m sure every profession has its way of distinguishing the amateurs from the professionals.   In aviation, the lowest rung of the ladder is “airplane driver.”  I heard it more than once in my training, typically when I did something wrong: “You don’t want to be a driver, do you?”

The next higher level is the pilot, the one who has mastered the technical aspect of flying, the one who finally makes the shift from the two dimensional steering of the driver to the three dimensional flying of the pilot.   But there is yet another level, one reserved for the masters of flight.  These are the aviators.

They are, of course, somewhat artificial and arbitrary distinctions.  Yet, just as Justice Potter said about the difference between pornography and art, “I know it when I see it.”

The aviation writer Budd Davisson describes the difference between a mere pilot and an aviator this way:  “The difference is that an aviator is the airplane, and they move as one, while the pilot is simply manipulating the proper controls at the appropriate time and sees the airplane as a machine that he forces to do his bidding.”

I have flown with a lot of pilots, and the best pilot with whom I have ever flown was my first instructor, Floyd Jennings.  I witnessed Floyd’s flying on several occasions, but the most memorable was on my second flight as a student.   The first and only time I had ever felt nauseous in a small airplane was on that flight.

The nausea, which seemed to come from out of nowhere, was so bad that I knew I wouldn’t make it down to the ground without creating an embarrassing mess in the cockpit.  I was sweating profusely and my face was pale as I was trying to hold back.  I finally told Floyd that I couldn’t hold back any longer.  He glanced over and saw the sweat on my face and my normally pink Polish skin shift to a whiter shale of pale.

We were about halfway through the downwind leg of the pattern in Santa Paula, which means we were flying parallel to the runway, but pointed opposite to the direction needed to land.  Floyd took control of the airplane.  In what appeared to be a single movement, he looked from side to side, cut the power to idle, pointed the nose down, swooped down and around, and in a matter of mere seconds, the airplane kissed the ground sweetly and almost imperceptibly.

Whenever Floyd took control of the airplane, I had the distinct feeling that he and the metal bird were one.  Though he was a grizzled, curmudgeonly character, his flying was seamless, effortless, like wearing a comfortable shirt.   When he moved the airplane moved, when he blinked the airplane blinked.  He met Budd Davisson’s definition of aviator to a tee.   This was sadly in contrast to my flying, in which I often felt that I was wrestling with a metal beast.

I am currently working on a collection of poems I am calling “One With the Miso.”  It’s just a whimsical, silly title, but I like it because on the one hand, it sounds meaningless, but on the other hand, it expresses something bigger.   We can eat or drink the miso (that is, be a pilot), or we can become one with it.   Whatever our behavior, be it simply brushing our teeth, drinking soup or flying an airplane, we can get to the point where our sense of self as separate from the universe disappears, and the thing that we do and thing that we are becomes one.