31 October 2005

Guess the Job

I wrote this a long time ago and presented it to a junior-high school class during a Career-Day visit. I just dug it out of a file in my office. Some of you will appreciate it more than others.

My Job:

I wear gloves at work.

I wear a helmet at work.

I wear protective coveralls and boots at work.

I carry a heavy backpack, and I wear pants that squeeze my legs.

My office is a hot, small place with not much room for anything but a chair. I have a wonderful view, however, and I never get claustrophobia.

Right outside my office, it's very inhospitable. In fact, the weather is usually bitterly cold, and the wind blows like a hurricane.

While at work, I have to concentrate every second on what I'm doing, and also on what each of my coworkers is doing.

I have to talk to a lot of people at work, but I never get to see any of them.

My coworkers and I like to get very close to each other, but we must never touch. The consequences for such an error would be very severe.

I sometimes weigh over a thousand pounds at work.

Sometimes, I don't weigh anything at all.

People who visit my office and who aren't in my line of work often throw up when they watch me work.

My boss occasionally asks me to kill people, and I willingly comply. This is perfectly legal, and no jury will ever find me guilty of murder.

I can make the world turn upside down with just a slight movement of my hand.

I'm only allowed about five hours in my office per week, but if I could, I'd spend all my time there. Most people in my line of work carefully track each minute they spend in the office.

I make deafening noises while I'm at work, but only if you're watching me from the street. It's pretty quiet when you're actually in my office.

My boss expects me to take extreme risks, but to be safe about it.

If I do my job exceptionally well, the President of the United States might want to meet me. If I mess up my job seriously enough, the President might also want to meet me.

Can you guess my job?

27 October 2005

Missing Man Formation, From The Inside

Yesterday I was proud and honored to be part of a Missing Man formation of four jets that flew over the graveside funeral services of a WWII pilot who recently passed away. I was Number 4.

We got the flyby done, but certainly not the way we'd planned it.

We arrived over the appointed location at exactly the right time, but there was no one there. Lead looked down and saw only neat rows of empty chairs. A radio query to our ground coordinator confirmed the worst: The person giving the eulogy had talked for thirty minutes over his alloted time, and the mourners were just about leave the church, which was several miles away. We asked the coordinator to hold everyone in the parking lot, and to not let them drive away. Using our Number 2 wingman's knowledge of the local area, we were able to find the church and fly directly over it in perfect formation, just as the last people were exiting the building. Number 3 turned on his smoke system and pulled up in a graceful arc away from the other three airplanes, the hole in the formation symbolizing the loss of one of our own.

We regrouped and came back for a final pass in diamond formation.

As we climbed out and headed for home, the solemn voice of the ground coordinator came over the radio. "Guys, that was just absolutely perfect. There are a lot of teary eyes down here."

There might have been a couple of them up in the airplanes, too. Missing Man formations always get to me, and now I know that they get to me even when I'm flying in them.

17 October 2005

Des Moines Gets Hammered

For those who have never seen this kind of thing, this is what a good old-fashioned midwestern thunderstorm looks like from slightly above and twenty miles to the side. Notice the flat, anvil-shaped top.

This kind of storm is really spectacular at night. In addition to the usual amazing displays of lightning, thunderstorms have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Google "red sprites" and "blue jets" to learn about some other cool phenomena that pilots sometimes get to see. (I've seen a red sprite only once, and I'll never forget it...)

When I took this photo, we were flying at FL390 (39,000 feet). This particular storm wasn't particularly huge, as you can see by the fact that we're above its top. Many summer storms top 50,000 feet. We always stay well away from those...
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16 October 2005


Today was one of those inspirational fall days that make it wonderful to be alive. Here in northern Illinois, it was 68 degrees. The sky was crystal-clear, and blue like the deep end of a clear pool. Many of the trees were beginning to peak in all their yellow, orange, and red glory. The harvest has begun here, and the farmers are in the process of turning their fields of dry cornstalks into wide-open spaces. Along many country roads, this rapid horizon-expansion startles you. All summer long, the fields of tall crops have hidden whatever lies on the other side. Now, suddenly, you can see everything. It's like someone moved a mountain overnight.

For much of the day, I drove around with my trusty
VX-2100 and shot falling leaves, barns, lakes, circling hawks, horses, fenceposts, farm machinery, and other nice scenes. You know, good B-roll stuff. The tree colors were so vivid, it was like driving through a fireworks display. I even saw a colorful hot air balloon float by, several miles away. Everywhere, people were pulled over to the side of the road, just drinking in the sights, and seemingly stunned by the beauty in every direction.

In the late afternoon, at a quiet place on a country road, I pulled over and just sat there myself for a time, watching nature at work. Japanese beetles hummed and some kind of fluffy seed pods floated by and occasionally got stuck on my radio antenna.

Days like this are good for my soul. Today cleaned out a lot of the mental garbage that had accumulated after weeks of paying too much attention to the world.

At sundown, I was further rewarded by the sight of a huge, golden harvest moon rising behind the treeline. Airliners inbound to O'Hare passed silently overhead, their strobe lights accentuated by the perfectly clear air. High cirrus clouds to the west turned gold, then red. I drove slowly home, wishing for just a little more.

An hour after sunset, as I was about to walk in my front door, something caught my eye overhead. A thick contrail was lit up by the full moon, the invisible airplane at it's head pointed purposefully east. I doubt the pilots realized how pretty that looked, but thanks, whoever you were.

15 October 2005


I just finished watching an episode of a documentary series on the Discovery Channel entitled "SOS: Coast Guard Rescue," which featured lots of POV video of the activities of a particular helicopter crew in the 9th Ward area of New Orleans in the week following Hurricane Katrina. The photo crew mounted cameras everywhere, even placing a helmet-cam on the guy who dangled from the end of the cable and hoisted people off their rooftops and out of their windows (!).

These crews endured hours and hours of dangerous flying, weird situations involving their good judgement and experience, and foul conditions. My hat is off, big time, to the guys who hung it out in Louisiana and Mississippi, and who continue to serve our country in this way. As a fixed-wing guy, I sometimes forget how perilous rotary-wing rescue missions can be, and this show re-educated me.

My suggestion for the rest of us? No Coast Guard helicopter crew should have to buy their own beer in any bar in this country.

12 October 2005

Spud Webb’s Last High Speed Pass (or “Ernie Sebby’s Revenge”)

A friend forwarded an e-mail to me that chronicled the grounding of Navy Lieutenant Richard “Spud” Webb. Lt. Webb was the pilot of an F/A-18E Super Hornet that made a low approach and a subsequent afterburner traffic pattern at the San Luis Obispo (SBP), California airport in January 2005. A local resident, Ernie Sebby, offended by the “sound of freedom” thundering overhead, wrote an indignant and caustic letter to the SPB tower demanding they launch an investigation into the horrible four minutes of engine noise he was forced to suffer through.

The tower personnel called the Navy, one thing led to another, and Spud was grounded. Permanently.

Lt. Webb wrote to Ernie Sebby recently. His letter is heartbreaking, not only because it contains the grim details about the outcome of the incident, but because when you read it, you can feel Spud’s professionalism and restraint holding fast, but being sorely tested. I know that Spud wanted to tell this man to do horrible things with his own anatomy, but he didn’t. For that, I admire him.

Make no mistake -- I hate whiny homeowners who move near airports and complain about the noise, but I’m not trying to demonize anyone who hates jet noise. Instead, I want to turn this story into a learning experience for military pilots and warbird pilots alike. First, let me just get this off my chest: “There but for the grace Of God go I.” I’m definitely not perfect, and I’ve screwed up before. I cannot tell you the number of times I could have been in Spud’s flight boots. But all it takes is bad timing and a certain set of circumstances to set off a similar chain of hellfire on any given day, at any airport in the country. So, here’s what all pilots, military and civilian, must take from this sad story:

If you shine your ass often enough and hard enough, you will, repeat WILL, pay the cost someday. It may be that you get in trouble with the Feds and lose your license. It may end up with you standing in front of your C.O.’s desk in your Dress Uniform, answering a lot of pointed questions, or losing your wings like Spud. Or it may be that you get scraped out of a smoking hole somewhere.

OK, maybe these scenarios are overly dramatic.

The real price you pay may be that everyone around your airport starts to hate airplanes. Frankly, that outcome bothers me more than any of the others, because all pilots pay for that one. No one except you really cares if you lose your wings or your license. However, if the general public starts to think of airplanes as bad and evil, and if they start to think that many pilots lack good judgment, then you have done as much damage to aviation as did the 9/11 terrorists, and you probably deserve to lose your wings.

Is Spud a bad guy for blasting over Ernie Sebby’s house at Mach-snot and startling him? Nope. He’s a teacher for us all. Let his misfortune be the reason you don’t do a similar thing the next time you’re tempted. Aviation is full of unlucky people who serve as cautionary tales for the rest of us.

Tag, Spud. You’re it.

Funny Flight Attendants, Part 2

(This is another in a series of actual conversations I've had with Flight Attendants.)

A Flight Attendant (F/A) is in the cockpit. Opposite-direction traffic is approaching, 1000 feet below us.

Me: If you look out there in front of us, you'll get to see an airplane zip by us in just a minute.
F/A: What?!
Me (pointing): Yeah, he's right there, coming at us.
F/A (not looking): You can not see airplanes up here... can you?
Me: Sure! We see 'em all the time. Look right there.
F/A (spotting the 757 now): Oh my God! Oh my God! I didn't know you could see airplanes. I don't like that!
Me: Why?
F/A: I don't know. That seems dangerous.

Needless to say, some remedial training for this poor, lost soul followed. More funny stories coming soon.

11 October 2005

"Why You Should Fly the Big Airlines" article

Joel Widzer, a travel columnist at MSNBC, recently wrote this article that explains, as well as I ever could, the reasons you should fly the major airlines. Finally, someone in the media gets it! Hallejujah!

09 October 2005

The Best and Worst Airports (Buck's List)

I'm sometimes asked what the best and worst airports are, from an airline pilots' perspective. Here are my picks.

Non-pilots should understand the following:

1. None of the "worst" airports is so dangerous that it poses an inordinate risk to passengers. My selection of these airports comes from an operational perspective based on 26 years of flying airplanes. My gripes arise from either the "hassle-factor" of operating from them, their infrastructure, or other relatively small factors.

2. An airport is only as safe as the level of professionalism of the pilots who use it.
3. These are airports that I operate from. There are other airports that might make either list if I knew anything about them. Other pilots will have different opinions.
4. Several airports appear in both lists. Go figure.

With those caveats in mind, here are my favorite and least-favorite airports in North America and Europe, and the reasons for their selection:


O'Hare International, Chicago, IL (ORD): Best Air Traffic Controllers in the world, bar none. O'Hare controllers are the industry pinnacle of versatility, clarity, error-free precedural skills, and good-naturedness.

Denver Intenational, CO (DEN): Tons of maneuvering room on the ground. Laid out in perhaps the most ideal configuration possible. Facilities are clean and new. Long runways.

Portland, OR (PDX): Beautiful, spectacular approaches.

San Francisco International, CA (SFO): Ditto.

Los Angeles, CA (LAX): Long, straight-in approaches from the east, coupled with their common good visibility, makes for easy arrivals.

San Diego,CA (SAN): Perhaps the most interestingly-situated airport in the USA. At what other airport do you see mountainous desert, lush vegitation, vast suburbia, a Naval yard with aircraft carriers and destroyers, a dense downtown full of tall buildings, marinas full of sailboats, an ocean, a picturesque bay, and a parking garage close underneath your wheels, all in the space of one minute, while on final? Fun to fly into.

Oshkosh, WI (OSH): OK, I've never flown an airliner into OSH, but I've done it dozens of times in GenAv planes, and it's never more fun than during EAA AirVenture. If you haven't done it, you're missing out on a truly unique piloting experience.


John Wayne/Orange County Airport, Santa Ana, CA (SNA): High-performance, low-tolerance special noise abatement procedures. Tight ramp area. Non-standard operations. Frequent "slam-dunk" approaches that would be impossible if not for pilot judgement. Short runway, shared with General Aviation.

LaGuardia, NY (LGA): Small, congested airport with crossing runways that often end abruptly at water. Stressed controllers. Constant delays.

Toronto Pearson International, Toronto, Ontario, Canada (YYZ): Many iffy controllers. Ungrooved runways with deep ditches at end (especially on southwest side). Overly-complicated communication and taxi procedures.

Charles deGaulle International, Paris, France (CDG): Third-world taxiway and runway markings. Complex taxi routings with little or no guidance from ATC.

San Francisco International, CA (SFO): Limited runway configurations (especially with strong southerly winds) lead to low arrival capacity. Non-standard runway spacing also contributes to delays during IFR. Close terrain proximity off departure end of runway 28L/R. No glideslope (visual or electronic) on runways 1L/R due to terrain. Converging FMS visual approaches to 28L/R cause potential traffic conflicts or TAs/RAs. Crossing runways.

Philadelphia, PA (PHL): Long delays common due to traffic volume and runway spacing. Low visibility due to haze much of the year. Our company's operations are massively understaffed and screwed up.

Denver, CO (DEN): Weird, unpredictable weather. Near-constant turbulence on departure and arrival. A few iffy ground controllers.

Boston Logan, MA (BOS): Multiple crossing runways with different controllers assigned to each. Confusing taxiways, markings, and routings.

Reagan National, Washington, DC (DCA): Short, crossing runways. Critical arrival and departure procedures, especially to the north. Very close to Prohibited areas. Inconvenient and ridiculous security procedures for pilots and crew.

Washington Dulles, DC (IAD): High traffic volume. Many iffy controllers. ACARS-heavy, heads-down ramp taxi procedure.

John F. Kennedy International, NY (JFK): Traffic congestion. Occasionally-incomprehensible controllers.

Newark, NJ (EWR): Traffic delays of epic proportions during bad weather. Runway 22L hates me, and won't let me make smooth landings.

Once again, these observations are just my opinion. You're free to comment on your favorites and least favorites.

07 October 2005

My Friend Flip

Ten years ago today, I lost a good friend. On October 7, 1995, Phillip "Flip" Smith crashed his Pitts S-2S during an airshow performance at Waukegan, Illinois. It was his first paid airshow. He was 28.

I can't believe its been ten years. It feels like yesterday that we posed for photos next to the Embry-Riddle alumni tent at Oshkosh '95. At the time, Flip was my only "Airline Pilot friend," and I envied his freewheeling lifestyle -- the kind of lifestyle that allowed him take two weeks off from his job flying 727s for the airlines, fly to Oshkosh in a Super Cub with his girlfriend, and camp under the wing. He also owned several other airplanes, had lots of friends, and seemed to have the world by the tail.

Two months later he was gone.

Aviation is the most fun, rewarding career field I can imagine, but it can also be cruel and capricious. My list of "Friends Gone West" began in college, and I'm sad to realize that the list has grown by one or two names every year. Not many non-aviation friends of mine can say that they've lost over 30 friends in that time, but that's how this business is...

It's not fair. Friends like Flip are supposed to stick around a for a long time. Damn.

Miss you, buddy.

02 October 2005

Another Casualty

Yet another airline has disappeared, going the way of Eastern, TWA, PanAm, Braniff, PSA and all the other once-successful companies that are now just boxes of memorabilia on eBay. A friend of mine said he enjoyed his TMA flight from Rockford, IL to Las Vegas last year. The price was fantastic ($69) but, as the major airlines are still learning, if you want to be a successful enterprise, you simply can't continue to charge less for your services than it costs you to provide them. This lesson is harder for airlines to learn than you'd think. Let's hope the majors get smart soon.

R.I.P., TMA.

01 October 2005

The Fading of the Luster

It’s been a bad week. Bear with me while I vent.

Being an airline pilot used to be the top of the career ladder in aviation. Airline Captains were highly paid, thoroughly professional technicians whose skills and income were commensurate with their level of responsibility. Thanks to the new world in which we live, I’m not sure whether an airline career is really the pinnacle of aviation any more. There have been so many changes in my job in the past five years that I scarcely remember the way it used to be. Airline pilots, as a whole, are still very professional in the way we fly. We still care very much about our passenger’s safety and comfort. We still follow our Standard Operating Procedures. We still strive for on-time departures and smooth rides for our passengers. It’s just that now, there’s an underlying bitterness about the career. We look back on the way things used to be, and we sense our inability to ever return there. Our once-powerful unions are powerless to change anything. They’re even powerless to negotiate contracts with the company anymore, since corporate bankruptcy laws allow a bankrupt company to simply dictate the terms under which we will work, like it or lump it. Over half of the major airlines in this country are in Chapter 11 as I write this, and they are utilizing their force majeur clauses to the hilt, to the extreme detriment of employees. It’s a disgraceful situation.

There are days when I want to walk out of the cockpit at the end of a trip and never come back. Other days, when I’m zipping along at 550 knots groundspeed in the bright sunshine and rarified air of FL430, and admiring the magnificent view of a fully-developed thunderstorm as we pass by, or looking at thousands of square miles of western scenery in one glance, I want nothing but to stay up there and enjoy the sight for the rest of my career.

While that kind of experience is still special and awe-inspiring, I find myself thinking that it isn’t adequate compensation for the loss of career stability, 60% pay cut, loss of my pension, loss of all of my company stock (and inability to write off this loss on my taxes), position "bumps," sitting reserve, inability to upgrade, and utter career malaise that I’ve experienced. Not to mention the lack of sleep, circadian arrhythmia, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and stress issues caused by 2:00 AM wakeups, all-nighters, short layovers, being surrounded by bitter coworkers, etc., etc.

The only things that rejuvenate me and make me feel alive are my personal relationships, my hobbies, side businesses, and flying General Aviation airplanes and warbirds. I want nothing less than a career – an existence – that motivates and inspires me much of the time, not just a few times a year at FL430. Is that too much to ask?

I have a joyous and lofty lifestyle goal in mind, and I mentally refer to it often. I’ll share it with you here someday. For now, I am slowly reprogramming myself to think of myself as capable of leaving this career that I worked so hard to attain. It’s a tough process. I am so ingrained into the world of flying airplanes for a living that I have trouble imagining doing anything else as my primary career. I know I could be wildly successful doing other things, but replacing the “pilot” self-image with anything else requires a lot of mental squirming. No matter what else I do, I’ll always be deeply involved in airplanes, and I’ll always fly. I just may not do it professionally. Come to think of it, that could be a very good thing.

More to come.