A challenge for airplane people that write and fly for a living is that we never know when inspiration will come. You hope it comes when you aren’t too busy. This piece started while I was facing backwards (in the backward facing seat) of an air ambulance on a steep climb.
Safe? Statistically no. Not compared to the airlines. Am I typing, thinking and breathing comfortably? You bet. Aside from the turbulence from the wind rushing over the Sierras to our West and the sliding out of my seat from the rather steep deck angle, I’m fine.
I was early to the interview and that meant there was a chance for a nap.
I desperately needed some short burst of sleep. I had a simulator evaluation at 1:00 pm and it was now 10:40 am and I only had a short drive from airport to hotel. Perfect. I’ll call and hope for early room entry.
“Happy Holidays from the Hampton Inn, this is Kayla.”
“Kayla… Hi… I’m early for my check in time, but is there a chance that I can get into my room early? The last name is Webster.”
Per advice from well meaning advisors, this entry is entirely fictitious. It involves flying the sheriff out to the island, and turning right around and flying a distraught victim off the island. It is an airplane story only on the basis of center of gravity and freedom of control movement issues.
The control and CG issues were due their only being two seats in the airplane – one for me and one for the passenger. (This was common on freight runs or in a medevac flight when the aircraft was configured into “no seats” mode with all of the seats, except the pilot and co-pilot’s, removed.) But the meat of this story is around all the events that led to the fastest island extraction I’ve ever done.
The drama took place on an island that had a funky upslope runway. You would “land up” from the sea (pointing south) and “take off down towards it” (to the north) typically. It sounds heroic, but is pretty easy and casual when you get used to it. If the wind was really blowing hard from the north, you could bravely land downhill (into the wind) since your actual ground speed could be as little as 10 or 20 mph if you had 40 or 30 mph on the nose.
We’ll call this island Crustaceanicus. There are many such runways off the coast of Maine, but most are unknown, unpublished or no longer used. This one, however, saw use at least three times per day, weather permitting.
As you read the accident report, try and accept the fact that a mere 22 years ago, pilots often did things that were questionable at best. To keep the job, to get your foot in the door, or to conform to norms in your company and culture you did silly stuff. Never mind the customized approach to that god forsaken airstrip that you’d been sent to, you’d succumb to things that, technically, may not have been on the up and up with the FARs.
What is even more striking is that all of this “off script” behavior was rarely the stuff that got you hurt. What killed my teachers, was a lack of simple risk mitigation, awareness, and plain old decision making that got the swiss cheese holes to line up. In aviation we recognize that it is a series of things that typically lead to an accident. Our job, to live and be safe, is to constantly be thinking the stacking of bad, vs. the stacking of good. (I wrote about this once upon a time for the turbine crowd here.)
This story is about the day I stopped flying, sometime in 2001, when enough of my mentors had died that I thought, at a minimum, I could take some time off to reflect. I should take a good luck at my own suspect judgement, sub-par skill set and poor choices in equipment, destinations and jobs to fly.
Mostly, it was time to give thanks for the large scoops of good luck that had fallen on me in years where I was doing the riskiest stuff.
Sometimes, in the frozen bays of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, your frozen runway might not last long. That area you landed on yesterday? Gone… overnight.
“I look out de window, and dare was de runway … gone.”
The only French Canadian in the village was called Patrick McKinnon, and he reported all matters flying conditions to visiting pilots.
And all the english speakers? They had french names, but didn’t speak french.
The Lessards, the Beaubiens and of course the LeBlancs would ask: “Can you read my mail? ”
“S’from de governmen’,” would be the explanation. As a visiting bi-lingual city person I had multiple uses. Fly the airplane and read the mail from Le Gouvernment du Québec. As an anglo, meeting people with french names who spoke with french accents who could not read french was an eye opener. Welcome to the Lower North Shore.
When I think about people like Bunte, Jordan or Sparks, Mark or Neil, or a few others with a few too many hours in single engined aircraft, I realize that my education began after college, somewhere far from Western Massachusetts. You might argue that my graduate education began with learning the engineering limitations of a group of tired Cessna 206s, while also introducing jumpy Americans to the Okavango Delta of Northern Botswana.
In this first picture we can see a happy 206, that is empty, and resting whilst being carefully guarded by some great creatures, who also serve as the magnet to bring the jumpy Americans out to Mombo in the first place.
Let’s admit that all taildraggers are different. Some way way different. Some are easy and some are mean. I have not landed a Douglas DC-3, but I bet it is easier than a Super Cub on a cross-windy day.
Regarding the cult of the Skywagon and related 185 / 180 obsessors, I can offer this from 47 years of breathing, 25 of which I’ve spent teaching flying things: The Cessna 180 / 185 Skywagon is an easy thing to land, to land well, with grace and aplomb, when you master key principles:
One of the challenges of representing buyers, whether it is a Super Cub, King Air or Phenom is knowing where to start the opening shot: The offer.
How do you proffer a number to an aircraft seller that shows the seller multiple things? For example, your contact and methods demonstrate:
Your math accounts for outliers such as super low or high airframe total time, damage history, missing logs or a run out engine. (And when these are great.)
An offer that is serious (i.e. committed / real buyer) and likely to close.
A number that is fair and close to what other transactions are valued at for the same make, model and age aircraft. (And how to find hidden gems here.)
Adequate respect and mindfulness on how you handle the seller’s conditions or needs. (A smooth sale has as much to do with emotional self awareness, as it does the spreadsheet of how you structured the offer.)
Some new or aspiring pilots know what they want: Big tires, a tailwheel and being “off airport” just as much as “on airport.” If you land on the water, or are a helicopter, you’ll get used to the tower saying “land at your own risk.” This is music to the ears of those who chose a slightly unconventional learning path.
What do you seek? (In your aviation dreams?)
The cookie cutter flight school program? Or do you value critical skills early on that are often not taught until you fly your first seaplane or gravel bar landing tundra tired Super Cub?
It wasn’t too long ago that we all learned to fly a tail dragger in a field somewhere near a bigger airport. Most also turned out to be really good pilots for the simple reason that they had to use their feet (i.e. rudder) and an intuitive connection and approach to much of their flying. Just ask Sully.
The beauty of mnemonic devices is that they allow the tail wheel, seaplane or helicopter pilot do a checklist without the use of both hands. While there are checklist purists out there who may disagree with my methods, let me offer this: If you fly many different aircraft, whose checklists can be absent, inappropriate, out of date, etc. it is best to develop your own. A good way to build that base, for everything from a J-3 Cub up to t Beech 18, is to use, what I’ll term, “the classics.” CIGAR TIPS and GUMPS (more on GUMPS in another post.)