Theologians posit that the classic song by Frederic Austin was written to help Christians learn and pass on the tenets of their faith while avoiding persecution. We can all recite the lyrics from twelve down, but notice how difficult it becomes when reading from the bottom up: a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, five golden rings, etc.
In order to pass on the tenants of this writer’s 2019 articles without persecution (and for those who asked), here is an abbreviated version of this year’s stories. I hope that you find them joyful to remember – in any order.
An error of omission is not doing something that we should have done: forgetting to put the gear down, not feathering a prop during an engine failure, or neglecting to load an arrival/approach into the FMS. An error of commission is the mistake of doing a thing, but doing it wrong: extending the gear but while too fast, feathering the wrong prop during an engine failure, or loading the FMS with the wrong arrival/approach. Making an error of omission or commission is frustrating, and you’re not the only one that does it. Despite several dozen memory mnemonics, litanies and checklists, we make errors of omission and commission. Most of our mistakes are small and of little consequence, but the potential for a serious blunder looms large. By reviewing significant events from our flights, we can reduce both types of errors. The tool that helps us to avoid repeating the bad is called a debrief – write lessons learned in a diary or logbook.
Airspeed and money make airplanes fly. But that cliché and our clinical persona may deprive us of something more. What if we allow the right side of our brain to have a seat in the towing vehicle before we slide into the left seat of the airplane? The functional elegance of towing is often lost on us pilots, overshadowed by the left-brain efficiency, ease and convenience of a professionally prepositioned aircraft. Towing your own airplane will take some skill, so get some dual with your own tug, tow bar and airplane before you go solo. And if you will accept the challenge of towing, I will abandon the challenge of writing poetry about towing. (This was a reference to my poem titled “How Do I Tow Thee”).
The plethora of scattered notes and cautions in our instrument procedures can make it seem as if they’re written in a foreign language. But notes appear after something malo (bad) happened to someone. Usually by someone not paying attention or not thinking lo suficientemente por delante (far enough ahead). Procedural cautions and notes can prevent something bad from happening to our sensitive body parts (lindas nalgas). Not only do rules, restrictions and notes keep us safe from obstacles, but following them makes our actions efficient and predictable. With tens of thousands of instrument procedures around the world being flown by tens of thousands of pilots, we must all agree to update our pubs on schedule and before we fly them to review each for applicability, authorizations, restrictions and changes. If we miss a critical note, or we fly a procedure that is not authorized, the Feds may take a razor strap to our nalgas.
Many nursery rhymes express fear, suffering and disaster. Perhaps for us valiant aviators, this was a childhood primer to the potentially traumatic and unforgiving effects of weather. The list of atmospheric monsters has lengthened since we were kids, and pilots can’t outgrow or ignore them. No longer a fairy tale, turbulence demons live in the heart of our flying territory. From our pilot perspective, few things are as impressive as a 200-knot jet stream, a fire and brimstone producing thunderstorm, the kidney-rupturing lenticular clouds over a mountain range, or the roll cloud in front of a microburst – if we’re on the ground looking up, that is. When airborne near these turbulence-producing phenomena, stay far away, radar on, eyes wide open and your tail tucked between your legs. It will likely add a couple of minutes to your ETA but may save you from a fairy-tale-like demon.
The Boeing 737 Max crashes garnered worldwide attention not only because of their commonality, the perceived culpability of the manufacturer and implied pilot training deficiencies, but because aviation crashes remain the modern-day version of a train-wreck. Passengers are at the mercy of the 10 million manufacturing and design decisions that were made years before they ever boarded the plane. Those that pilot the 737 and its variants have been peppered with questions from inquiring minds that want to know, “What do you think happened? Why didn’t they turn off the system? Would you feel safe flying the Max?” The executive summary is this: Engineers created a “background” system using a marginally reliable, non-redundant probe/sensor. The crews didn’t recognize the failure mode. And yes, I would still fly the airplane. By the time you read this, we will have some answers and a solution will be in place. Probably new software, additional AOA sensor input, system activation annunciation and additional aircrew training. However it unfolds, when any failure rears its head in the airplane, it will be your training, experience, determination and judgment that will prevail as you demonstrate some of that pilot-stuff.
Misbehaving AOA sensors have now invaded GA and precipitated the grounding of yet another fleet – the Cirrus Vision Jet. May’s MCAS article seems to have prophetically provided a plausible prologue for a story about requesting traffic priority if our own plane presents us with a pickle of a problem. “Mayday, mayday, mayday” is itself an alliteration-like-three-peat and thus perfectly personifies the preparatory paragraph. We practice hair-raising scenarios in the simulator not only to rehearse the procedures but to help override our human nature to be afraid, to fight or flee, and also to negate the perception of time compression. Hopefully, this story desensitized you to the use of the repetitive mayday, mayday, mayday radio call, which can add adrenaline and make it seem as though we are overreacting and overstating the seriousness of our problem. Your cool, calm use of the mayday, mayday, mayday call will certainly carry, carry, – the, the, – day, day. Is there an echo in here?
Aviation humor is a dialectal minefield for a writer and can easily poke an eye out if misused. But a tactful, tastefully presented and good-spirited bit of humor (or sarcasm) can help information and lessons stick in our memory better than IMSAFE, GUMP or Identify, Verify and Feather. It can also counterbalance the effects of the life-sucking, joy robbing ordeal of Part 121 aircrew scheduling in a thunderstorm infested, 737 MAX grounding, post 9-11 era. Mature metaphor alert: children look away.
Stories such as this one with grown-up humor, even when honest and sensitive, are an opportunity for fallout, and I’m thinkin’ this story may need to be stashed in the unmentionable drawer with grandma’s bloomers. But like that morning flight with the “stiff-one” offer, I hope my use of humor to make pilot-y points will help you to remember what are often painful lessons for some other schmuck – even the pilot-y points that were rated PG.
In 1972, my hair was shoulder-length, shoes were platform, pants were bell-bottom, and I did not yet have 100 hours flying time. I ventured to Oshkosh that year with six flight instructors by resting my scrawny, 110-pound physique in the seventh (jump) seat of a Seneca I. Back then, Vans Aircraft was a year old and the convention’s Wisconsin venue was only two years into its 50-year reign. Burt’s VariViggen was brand new and the VariEze didn’t yet exist. You could buy red 80 octane fuel everywhere, get a ride in a Breezy and Bob Hoover was the star of the airshow. Now the largest annual fly-in in the world, it’s much more than a fly-in; it’s a family reunion complete with a flood of memories. I still feel like that long-haired, 110-pound, student-pilot-hippie when at Oshkosh, but now that I’m a balding, professional pilot and writer, I have an image to uphold – right? A special thanks to the spirit-filled lady that was yodeling in her best Julia Child voice “hellooooo” from a tent somewhere. It made me want to break into my Steve Martin, Wild and Crazy Guy imitation with both hands alternately pointing skyward. Oshkosh can do that.
The year that I started high school, a brand-new C-172 was $33,950 and they built 750 of them. The favorite flavor of flight school fuel was red 80 octane, and a third-class physical was completed as if you were applying to be a Mercury astronaut. It was a time when you needed a restricted radiotelephone operator permit to use the airplane radio. and your flight instructor chastised you for not only piloting errors but for improper use of the radio. After soloing in GA, your shirttail was ceremoniously and publicly cut off, potentially exposing non-pierced nipples and navels. At the majors, most FO’s flew for 12 to 18 years with old-school captains before they upgraded to the left seat. And while the captains and FOs flying today may have 45 to 70 years of combined flying experience, the flying time of a new captain and a new FO’s added together will soon not be as much as one retiring captain. But despite these differences in generational characteristics and experience levels, the pilot partition of Gen Y and Z continues to show impressive skill and intelligence. Their level of adaptability noticeably exceeds previous generations, and not just in their ability to use Bluetooth electronics and essential oils. So, we may not be doomed after all.
I’m not a fan of the grisly facets of All Hallows’ Eve. But the ghoulish holiday presents a timely pretext to discuss what we tell our passengers before things turn dangerous or disastrous. No matter from which side of the cockpit door you toil, we all do our part in dealing with passengers. Telling them in frustration, as the flight attendant did in our story, that they and their little dog Toto will die in a huge ball of fire, is not the best option. The non-pilot public absorbs information more readily when delivered by the PIC. And the recent Citation runway accidents (Citation Excel at OVE – 6,020 ft. runway, and a Citation Latitude at 0A9 – 4,529 ft. runway) highlight the need to talk to our passengers just like we do at the airlines about emergency exits and following the instructions of crewmembers. Though sometimes frightening, passengers want the truth. But try not to scare the crap out of them. Or their dog.
This year I drew a New Mexico hunting permit in an area in which the elevation ranges from 8,000 feet to over 12,000 feet. Since my office for 85 hours each month is at about an 8,000-foot cabin altitude, I figured a high altitude, wilderness hunt on horseback would be doable for this 63-year-old, soft-skin, flat-land Gringo. I’m a healthy airline pilot; how hard could it be?
Next September marks 30 years since I last flew the F-16. That day, on my 34th birthday, I remember wondering if I had squeezed every bit of training and fun out of my flights. I felt the same emotions when asked how I felt about delivering an MD-80 to Roswell. After 57 years in airplanes, four engine failures and a plethora of system problems, you gain a perspective on the metaphysical magic of the machine. As you age, evaluate and monitor your own flying ability and proficiency, and don’t let time slip you by. And after your next flight when no one is looking, let a little California Dreamin’ into your heart and give the airplane a kiss on the nose. You will be glad you did when all your leaves are brown.
December: Twelve Days of Christmas – Drumming Along Like a Wright R-3350
There you have it. Feel free to email me if you would like a PDF of any articles, and we’ll talk again in 2020. Merry Christmas, my friends.