24 August 2005

Perfect Sunset

I love to take pictures of the sky. My collection includes over 2,000 images I've taken, both from the ground and from the air. This one was taken in September of 2002 in Illinois. More to come.

20 August 2005

Midway Magic

This summer, I spent quite a few weekends in downtown San Diego. One of the new attractions there is the USS Midway (CV-41) aircraft carrier, which is now on permanent display about a five-minute walk from the hotel where I stayed. I spent four amazing hours touring her one recent weekend. If you need some not-so-subtle reminders about what a mighty country we live in, take the tour yourself, and consider that this ship entered service in 1943 and was decommissioned over ten years ago. It’s an old piece of machinery, and yet I guarantee it’s still the most impressive thing you’ll see all week.

My stepbrother served aboard the Midway in the late seventies and early eighties, so I feel a certain special kinship with her, even though I was an Air Force flyboy and the closest I ever got to a nautical item during my military career was a bottle of Captain Morgan.

The crew’s private berthing spaces and work centers still retain many of the personalized touches given to them by thousands of men and women who lived and worked there. (If you take the tour, look for the Pink Floyd stickers on the lower bunk in the enlisted berth, among many other things.)

There are 15 aircraft displayed onboard, with at least six more coming soon.

Part of the drama of a ship this big is seeing it in context with an object you’re familiar with. San Diego makes this easy, because the Midway is moored right next to downtown. When you stand on the flight deck and your head is level with the tenth floor of nearby office buildings, it’s evident how utterly huge the thing is. And yet I bet it looked damned small when seen from a half-mile final at 140 knots. Can you say "floating postage stamp"?
I'm not at all embarrased to say that I liked the Air Force's 8,000-foot runways, but I sure would have liked to get CQ'd during my military flying career. Guess I'll just have to settle for having a bunch of successful traps in the Hornet sim. Oh, well.

My hat's off to the guys who did it, and still do it, every day. You are studs of the highest order.

Midway.org (Museum Site)

Humorous Sighting of the Day

A friend reports that, while sitting as a passenger in the coach section of an MD-80 operated by a major airline which shall remain nameless, he watched the First Officer perform a somewhat cursory and rapid preflight inspection of the airplane while eating a sausage and egg breakfast sandwich! Nice multi-tasking there.

Not so humorous was the safety briefing given by the Flight Attendant on the same flight. She stood near the exit row and, rather than giving the usual safety briefing regarding the operation of the doors, looked carefully at each nearby passenger and asked, “Are any of you from the FAA?” Hearing no response to the affirmative, she gave the following door briefing, reproduced here in its entirety: “OK, there are the doors. Blah, blah, blah…”

No, I’m not kidding. That’s what she said.

Lots of funny and/or astonishing things happen on airliners. I should start collect some of my own experiences, and those of my friends. It’d make a good book.

16 August 2005

The Uglifying of Paradise

I live in one of the most beautiful places in the country, in my opinion. Some people call it corn country, but there’s way more to it than that. It’s rolling farmland, punctuated with large patches of woods, prairies, and fallow pastures. Everything is green and alive. Most of the summer (except during a draught, like this year), the grass is as lush and vibrant as that on any championship golf course. Family farms, with picturesque barns and silos that have stood for a hundred years, dot the landscape. Small country roads wind their way around and over the hills, down through the valleys and across bubbling streams. Cows and horses roam the pastures. The sense of openness and freedom is tangible. People who live in the city feel vaguely exposed here. They often feel like they need more buildings and structures to “hold them in” somehow. Not me. I thrive on the space, and the fact that you can see all the way to the horizon.

If I had to pick the worst possible view-spoiler imaginable, it would be a white, 400-foot tower, topped by a set of long, whirling blades that caught your eye every time you looked in its general direction. Over a dozen of these apparitions covering nearly a thousand acres would make this area immeasurably
fugly for miles around.

But that’s exactly what some landowners near me are trying to do. The placidly-named Heritage Ridge Wind Farm would provide a small amount of electricity for local residents, and a small yearly revenue for the landowners. In exchange, locals would get the thrill of seeing a horizon-full of these monstrosities thrashing the air. I say "locals," but actually, a recent study showed that over 90% of the population of my county would be able to see parts of one or more of the turbines at all times.

These are not the small wind generators you occasionally see clustered along ridgelines in California and other locations. These are huge structures. The ones proposed for my area are almost as tall as a 50-story building, with an effective width of over 300 feet. And unlike a 50-story building, they're almost constantly in motion.

American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), on their web site’s FAQ, addresses the visual impact a wind farm makes, with this:

“Visual impacts… can be minimized through careful design of a wind power plant. Using turbines of the same size and type and spacing them uniformly generally results in a wind plant that satisfies most aesthetic concerns. Computer simulation is helpful in evaluating visual impacts before construction begins. Public opinion polls show that the vast majority of people favor wind energy, and support for wind plants often increases after they are actually installed and operating.”

I’m sorry, but uniform spacing of 400-foot wind generators does not “satisfy my aesthetic concerns.” Rather, it enhances my dislike of the whole idea.

The AWEA then asks the question, “Will wind energy hurt tourism in my area?” Their own answer:

“People who would rather not live near wind plants (sometimes referred to as "NIMBYs," short for "Not In My Back Yard") often raise this concern with respect to new wind project proposals. There is no evidence that wind farms reduce tourism, and considerable evidence to the contrary. For example, in late 2002, a survey of 300 tourists in the Argyll region of Scotland, noted for its scenic beauty, found that 91% said the presence of new wind farms ‘would make no difference in whether they would return.’ Similar surveys of tourists in Vermont and Australia have produced similar results.”

Their position assumes that we here in northern Illinois want tourism, or have an infrastructure to support tourism in the first place. Loss of tourism is not our concern. Simple aesthetics and enjoyment of our surroundings is what we care about.

There are certainly some successful wind farms out there in the world. For the space they occupy, they appear to provide clean, relatively inexpensive electric power for certain communities, and they make use of a free resource. Great. I applaud the concept.

But wind farms spoil the view, and there’s absolutely no getting around that fact. That’s why most people think they should be located away from people. Far, far away, like the
Kilronan Wind Farm, located on a craggy plateau in Ireland. Or the Cape Wind farm, offshore from Nantucket, Massachusetts. Or the proposed London Array, located offshore in the Thames Estuary in the UK. Notice the common theme with these projects? They’re in remote places where NIMBYs like me won’t complain about their obvious ugliness.

In this article, I've mostly emphasized the appearance of wind turbines, but physical ugliness is only one of many negative characteristics about them. Visit the sites listed at the end of this entry for more information about the number of birds they kill, what they sound like, how far they sling ice, and what they do to the mental state of local residents. You'll also learn some facts about the cost of wind power that will make you wonder if it's worth all the effort. Wind farms also have a huge negative impact on home values for miles around. Just ask the landowners and homewoners in Lincoln, Wisconsin, the site of a similar wind farm. Property values within a mile of the new turbines went down 26% after the project was completed. Even properties more than a mile away went down 18% in value the moment the turbines were operational.

The families in Caledonia, Illinois who want to spoil everyone’s enjoyment of our beautiful surroundings for their own, minor gain should give serious consideration to the war they are declaring on their neighbors by doing so. NIMBY? Me? Damn right I am, and so are a lot of my fellow residents. We don't want our country's heartland blighted by wind turbines (or anything else) that spoils our magnificent landscape.

Further Reading (Highly Recommended):

13 August 2005

Hollywood Needs More Aviation Technical Advisors

While flipping though the channels a couple of nights ago, I came across a made-for-TV movie on the Lifetime Network entitled, “Rough Air: Danger on Flight 534.” I was riveted.

I was riveted because it was the biggest piece of crap I think I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen High School plays that were more realistic than this movie. I only watched for ten minutes, but two minutes was all I needed to determine that I shouldn’t watch it any more. The other eight minutes were spent laughing and repeatedly saying, “Oh my God, this totally sucks!” Movies like the classics Airplane and Airplane 2 were written to mock movies such as this, and frankly, the Airplane series got more of the details right.

Where do I start? The interactions between the crewmembers were totally, utterly and completely wrong. The a-hole Captain was devoid of any semblance of the standard command attributes, or even the general personality, that a pilot must have. There is no way that a pilot like him could ever have made it to the cockpit of an airliner.

The Flight Attendants in the movie had conversations that would never, ever happen. Their dialogue made them sound like automatons, and idiotic ones at that.

The technical details of the airplane were laughable. In the takeoff scene, the Captain asks for “E.P.R.” power. It’s supposed to be pronounced “eeper.” OK, that’s a small point, but the really funny part of the scene was when the First Officer reached up in response to the “E.P.R.” callout and pushed a button clearly labeled “Flight Deck Door.”

The radio calls were astonishing in their bogusity. It was as if the producer had hired a non-pilot scriptwriter to just imagine what a radio conversation with Air Traffic Control must sound like. (He could have asked me, for crying out loud.)

Here’s the last scene I witnessed before leaping out of my chair and running out the door to take a deep breath of fresh air and save my own life: Mere minutes before a flight, a First Officer on administrative leave is asked to fly a trip with the demanding Captain. He actually flies the trip! No recurrent training in the simulator, no Proficiency Check, no paperwork, no nothing. He just hops in the right seat and starts punching buttons. Wow! What an operation!

OK, Hollywood. Your wait is over. My services as an Aviation Technical Advisor are now available to any producer, director, or scriptwriter who needs an acceptable compromise between perfect reality and what’s feasible to do. It’s my strong belief that what gets captured on film can satisfy the budget, the shooting timeline, and the technically-pickiest of audiences. You just have to care a little. Directors and producers must not let a poor script drag a production down to the sad level of Rough Air.

The problem is, you might not know much about aviation, and therefore might not even know it’s a poor script. That’s fine. I don’t know jack about gardening, wine, or brain surgery.

Just don’t assume your script’s OK. Find someone who knows about this stuff. Get an expert to review the thing early, preferably one who can also write some quick and high-quality revisions for you, if they're needed. That way, your finshed movie will stand out as “true” in everyone’s mind, not just the lowest-common denominator out there.

I know that Rough Air was just a straight-to-video TV movie, but people everywhere are silently (and not so silently) begging moviemakers everywhere to take heed – the world does not need another movie, of any kind, that so completely ignores the technical details. Please!

11 August 2005

VLJs Will Save the World. Maybe.

I love the idea of VLJs (Very Light Jets), and I hope they catch on. The people who will determine how successful they are will be the passengers who want to fly without the hassle of driving to the airport, checking their bags, standing in long lines, suffering the ignominy of going through the TSA’s latest version of “security screening,” waiting to board the airplane, shuffling down a long and crowded jetway, finding their seat, waiting for the plane to take off, sitting for hours in a center seat between two horizontally-challenged people, connecting to another packed flight in another city; then, at their destination city, walking a half-mile to collect their bags, finding a taxi or rental car, and driving the rest of the way to their destination.

VLJs offer the vision of direct service, virtually between any place and any other place in the country. (Cue the singing angels.) Can you imagine NO lines, NO crowds, easy and expedited security procedures, a two-minute boarding process, and your own large, comfy leather seat with your own armrests?

Today, if you live in, say, Moline, Illinois, and you have a meeting in, say, Las Cruces, New Mexico, you have a very long day of travel ahead of you. You’ll have to drive or fly to Chicago (three hours, either way you do it), then fly to El Paso, Texas (not a direct flight in most cases), then you must rent a car and drive for an hour to get where you need to be in Las Cruces. Expect the whole process to take twelve to fourteen hours, assuming that everything goes perfectly. A VLJ, on the other hand, could pick you up at the local airport in Moline and make the trip to the Las Cruces airport in three hours, tops. Pick any two U.S. towns with a public airport with 4000 feet of runway, and a VLJ can connect them, usually with a maximum of only one fuel stop. There are less than 200 large, commercial airports in the USA, and there are more than 10,000 airports that can be used by a VLJ. Any questions?

The three front-runners in the VLJ manufacturing race are the
Eclipse 500, the Cessna Citation Mustang, and the Adam 700, each of which is in the flight test phase. These airplanes are poised to receive FAA certification in the next 18-24 months. Each has 4-6 comfortable passenger seats, a crew of two pilots, and a range of somewhere around 1,300 miles.

Already, several “on-demand air taxi” (ODAT?) companies have sprung up, with plans to purchase one or more of the three models. One of the first companies,
Pogo, was created by American Airlines ex-CEO Robert Crandall and People Express founder Donald Burr, and is expected to begin flying the Eclipse 500 in the next two years. Another one, DayJet, may begin service as early as 2006, serving small and mid-sized markets that are underserved by the airlines.

There are several other companies with the same sorts of business plans, and at least three other VLJ designs in the construction and flight test phase, including the futuristic-looking
HondaJet. These are truly exciting times in aviation. Stay tuned for more.

09 August 2005

“Pilot in Command” a Title Not to be Taken Lightly

On May 11, 2005, one man’s weak piloting skills and irresponsibility led to an incident that probably affected every pilot in the country. Hayden Schaeffer was the pilot of a Cessna 150 that violated the Restricted Area around Washington D.C., causing mass evacuations in government buildings. Military aircraft, both helicopters and F-16s, intercepted him, and SAM batteries were within a minute of shooting him down. He’s a very lucky guy that they didn’t.

This isn’t the first time an errant private pilot has violated the DC airspace, but Schaeffer’s proximity to the Mall area, his initial lack of responsiveness to the escort aircraft, and his erratic flight path prior to being intercepted all led to the extreme response from law enforcement personnel.

He was, very simply, lost. But “lost” doesn’t cut it as an excuse when you’re navigating an airplane in and around the Washington DC area. It’s one of a few places in the world where you simply can’t ever lose your situational awareness. We as pilots should all know that by now, but apparently some people never internalized the idea. Now, General Aviation is once again under scrutiny from lawmakers, the media and the public.

It happened again on July 2nd. Another GA aircraft violated the DC airspace, and our politicians were sent running for cover. Folks, it’s a really bad idea to repeatedly make our lawmakers run for cover. They are apt to decide they’ve had enough of small airplanes, and ground us all. There’s enough innocent misunderstanding and sheer ignorance of aviation in the world already, without news reporters broadcasting sensational reports about another small plane causing problems.

Y’all be smart out there.

08 August 2005

Jets to Oshkosh

Steve, a friend and fellow L-39 Instructor Pilot, and I flew two L-39s to Oshkosh, Wisconsin on 19 July to position them for the EAA’s AirVenture convention. It had been a long time since I flew a two-ship solo formation sortie with a similarly-trained ex-Air Force fighter guy. We had a magically great time. It was as if we’d gone back in time 10 years.

Earlier in the day, we test-flew the two airplanes on a local formation sortie. Steve led me on an interval takeoff from Rockford, Illinois, and we rejoined and headed for our west practice area, climbing up to about 12,000 feet. The planes’ systems needed to be thoroughly evaluated, so we did a full series of formation configuration changes (gear, flaps, and speedbrakes in various combinations), then cleaned up and began some formation wing work (mostly crossunders, close trail, lazy eights, and barrel rolls).

After a few minutes, Steve said, “Go extended trail,” and I answered, “Two.” He peeled away in a full-power, rolling dive and I positioned myself in a 1500-foot cone behind him. When I called “in,” he began a series of loops, rolls, and lazy eights, with me following behind. Using BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers) to stay in position is extremely rewarding – you don’t get to exercise these skills very much in any other kind of flying.

It was time to go home. Steve rocked his wings and I rejoined as he dove down through a large hole in the cumulus clouds. We entered initial and broke to downwind using four-second spacing. We looked damned good.

After we’d refueled, it was time to head to Oshkosh. We loaded up our cargo compartments with our canopy covers, inlet and exhaust covers, and lawn chairs. We strapped in and, with a nod of Steve’s head, we cranked the engines in perfect synch. After an utterly flawless formation takeoff, we climbed to a 13,500-foot cruising altitude for the 20-minute flight. It was cool and smooth as glass, and the late afternoon sun had that golden glow to it -- the kind of glow photographers love. (Wish I’d had someone with a camera in my back seat!)

We reported initial at KOSH, to the apparent delight of the controllers, who cleared us for multiple patterns, in whichever direction we wanted. Steve made the mistake of doing a touch and go. I did a low approach, cleaning up on short final and eating his lunch, energy-wise. His closed pattern was nice, but I had LOTS of smash at the departure end of the runway, and was able to do a monstrous closed pattern that any F-16 driver would have admired. Ahhh. There’s nothing like pulling up into a closed pattern.

The Oshkosh convention grounds looked completely ready to go -– all the buildings, signs, and display tents were in place, but there were no people and very few airplanes. A strange sight indeed, especially if you’ve ever been to Oshkosh during the convention.

We landed, parked and secured the jets, then caught a ride home in a mighty
T-41 (Cessna 172) piloted by our friend Bobby. The trip took over an hour as we slogged along at 3000 feet in the evening heat. Quite a contrast to our earlier trip, but very enjoyable nonetheless.

What a day. I felt rejuvenated and alive. I need more of this kind of thing in my life.

07 August 2005

Thinking Big

As we get to know each other, you’ll find that I’m in the process of remaking myself. I call the project “Buck 4.0.” (Buck 1.0 represents who I was until I graduated from college in the late 80's. Buck 2.0 was the time I spent as a military pilot. Buck 3.0 is the guy who's spent nearly a decade as an airline pilot. Buck 4.0 will be the entrepreneur.)

The transformation to “4.0” is in progress. It will be a careful, planned escape from what I have come to recognize as an untenable situation: A career with an employer – any traditional employer – is a huge limitation for me and severely limits what I know I can do with my life. Contemplating an escape from this lifestyle is scary, in a way, because I’ve always had guidance given to me in my work life. I always picked my general direction, but once I signed on the dotted line in the military, for example, they pretty much told me when and where I'd be going next, and what I'd do when I got there. Similarly, the airlines dictate every little detail about how my job is to be accomplished, from my specific schedule to the way I have to call out the checklists. While I certainly understand, applaud, and utterly comply with this sort of guidance when I’m flying you and your family across the country in a 120-ton airplane, I also yearn for something different. Being free of an employer is going to allow me to set my sights way, way higher than most people ever think about setting them.

I’ll be sharing some of my new goals as time goes on. I encourage you to think about your dream goals, too. I’m going to be telling you about some of the remarkable things that happen when you learn how to reprogram yourself to think big.

05 August 2005

It’s a New World for Airline Pilots

To those of you who might be contemplating a career as a professional pilot: No doubt you’ve read about the turmoil plaguing the airline industry of late. You’re going to hear a lot more from me on this topic. For now, let me just say that it’s very important that you follow your heart when you’re beginning a flying career. If you don’t love flying -– and mean really LOVE it -- it’s probably not for you. There are plenty of ways to earn a comfortable income without subjecting yourself to the things an airline pilot must endure.

When it’s bad, like it is now, it’s pretty bad. Some people use the word “abysmal.”

However, when it’s good, it’s absolutely the most rewarding, embarrassingly-fun thing you can do for a living. And there’s no office on earth that can match the view, and it’s still an honorable way to earn a living.

It’s always been cyclical. The airlines go through ups and downs more than any industry I’ve ever heard of. We have long hiring booms, followed by years of layoffs. Pay rates often peak around contract negotiation time, followed by painful concessionary deals in the years that follow. If you prepare for an airline career like I did, largely by talking to airline pilots, you get the picture pretty quickly.

In September of 2001, terrorists used four of my industry’s beautiful airplanes as weapons, killing thousands of people and plunging the country into war. At that moment the cycle changed. My airline’s financial downturn turned into a financial plummet, the likes of which had never been seen before. It went straight downhill, for over three years, with no upticks to reassure everyone we’d be OK. I won’t go into the details here and now, because that’s a topic for another article.

From an airline pilot’s perspective, here are a few of the many ways that my career changed in the months and years that followed 9/11:

1. Airport security went from being a mild annoyance and a topic of many jokes to a deadly-serious procedure administered by the Federal Government. Flight Crews are now subject to the same scrutiny as our passengers, including removing coats (and in some places, shoes) as we pass through security. Our bags go through the same x-ray machines as everyone else. We can’t carry Leatherman tools, nail files, or lighters anymore.

2. Pilots are now authorized to carry guns, and are deputized as Federal Flight Deck Officers (after extensive training, of course).

3. Armed Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) now ride on many of our flights.

4. Many pilots underwent Taser training in 2002, in preparation for carrying these unique weapons. (This plan fell through when the FAA approved the use of real guns.)

5. Our cockpits are now nearly-impenetrable fortresses, fitted with Kevlar doors, reinforced frames, digital locks and peepholes. Many airplanes are fitted with secondary cockpit barriers.

6. The procedures the Flight Attendants use to access the cockpit during flight are radically different from the “old days.” No more “coded knocks,” for one thing.

7. Pilots now have a four-level Security Response checklist for dealing with inflight incidents such as disruptive passengers, unusual items, or even strange smells. We practice these procedures every nine months in the simulator.

8. Our company operates a 24-hour security desk, optimized to provide flights with all the logistical support they might need in the event of a security threat.

9. We now constantly monitor Guard (the emergency frequency) inflight.

10. Crews now have special security procedures and codes used between the airplane and the dispatcher. Our company can query us at any time inflight, and essentially ask, “Is everything OK?” An improper response on our part will result in a visit from a flight of F-16s.

11. Speaking of which, we are now subject to inflight intercept and escort in the event of a security “situation.” Pilots are responsible for knowing the various intercept procedures.

12. Until recently, Washington, DC’s
Reagan National Airport, due to its close proximity to the White House, US Capitol building, and all the other DC landmarks, required a set of security procedures you wouldn’t believe. Failure to follow these procedures to the letter resulted in the aircraft being diverted to another airport. There is now an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) around Washington, DC, much like the ones off our nation’s coastlines. A special illumination system is now in place to alert pilots that they are approaching the Washington DC Prohibited Area. The Prohibited Area around Camp David grew from 3 miles to 15 miles in diameter.

13. On a more personal level, pilots and Flight Attendants are now very conscious of the fact that we are, potentially, frontline fighters in the war on terror. Our passengers’ actions and words are closely scrutinized. Flight Attendants, especially, are now much more aware of their surroundings in the airplane and elsewhere. At least most of them are…

14. Many companies laid off almost a quarter of their pilots. A series of pay cuts (totaling a 60% cut for some people) and numerous contract changes have meant extreme lifestyle changes for all of us.

I won’t bore you with a lot of other details, but you can see that a lot has changed in my profession since that day in September 2001. We’re pressing ahead, but it’s a different world for us now -- more so than in just about any area of American life.