Thursday, January 22, 2015

A New York Christmas Miracle

I'm a bit late in relaying this anecdote, but I think it's a fitting epitaph of my stint in New York as my time here draws to an end this month. On one hand I really enjoy flying out of "The World's Greatest City." The crews based here are great, the chief pilots notably laid-back, and I even like the passengers: I prefer New Yorkers' brusque frankness to the oblique passive-aggressiveness that we Minnesotans have elevated to an artform. On the other hand, absolutely nothing here comes easy. Just getting to work on time can feel like an epic battle. I'm almost always commuting in the night before, often on the jumpseat of an oversold flight, waiting for the crashpad van, finding an open bunk, speaking Spanish while shopping at the corner tienda, reserving a shower time, trying to sleep as roommates snore, waking with a jolt to silence my alarm, trying to gather my belongings in the dark without waking anyone, hunting down the missing iron, waiting for the Q33 bus in the rain, schlepping my bags through crowded Roosevelt station to catch the E-train, running to make the JFK Airtrain, walking half a mile down Terminal 4's B concourse to the crew room. After all that, the ATC reroutes, ground metering, congested frequencies, bewildering taxi routes, and last-minute runway changes are a piece of cake!

Which is why I was dreading the trip that ended on Christmas Eve. When I originally bid it, I looked for an early release but failed to consult the flight schedules. It turned out they were greatly reduced for the holiday: my airline's last flight out of JFK left at noon, and the last flight out of LGA left at 4:25pm. My trip was scheduled to end at JFK at 3:25pm; a one-hour connection between airports during rush hour seemed very iffy. The one other option to get home late that night was trying to jumpseat on a full Sun Country flight at 9pm. Fortunately I was flying with a captain who was in the same boat, and we resolved to get out of Orlando early and fly fast on our last leg. The week prior I had ended a trip with a 45-minute-early arrival from Orlando and a repeat performance seemed my best chance of going home for Christmas.

It started out so promising: the gate agents were gung-ho to get us out early, our dispatcher agreed, and a Mad Dog load of merry passengers showed up at the gate on time. We were loaded and ready to go at 12 minutes prior to departure. Unfortunately the ramp was understaffed, so it took forever to load the bags; we pushed back several minutes late. Then ATC switched our runway from to 18L due to a birdstrike on 17R, and for possibly the first time ever, Southwest was taxiing at a snail's pace - right ahead of us! Once off the ground, ATC was slow to turn us onto our route over the water, and we weren't even to cruise altitude when they slowed us to 250 kts for in-trail separation to New York. Halfway up the eastern seaboard, the vectors started. At one point ATC offered normal speed - if we were willing to turn 80 degrees off course! I thought he was joking, but he wasn't. On descent into JFK, we were switched to Runway 4L (we usually get 4R from the CAMRN arrival), requiring a hasty re-brief, reconfiguration, and running the checklist again. No sooner was that accomplished than the visibility dropped below minimums for 4L and we were switched back to 4R. As soon as we set up for that, the vis came back up and we were again sent to 4L! This all took place while being vectored through a maze of cells with pelting rain and moderate turbulence at minimum approach airspeed. We broke out a couple hundred feet above minimums, the captain made a beautiful landing, and the taxi to the gate was mercifully short. We parked at 3:40pm, only 15 minutes late in spite of everything - and 45 minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart from LaGuardia.

After that flight from hell, the last thing I wanted to do was hang around JFK for 5 hours to finagle a jumpseat. I decided to go for broke. I ran outside to the taxi rank and (for the first time in my life) jumped the queue to tell the marshaller that I had a tight connection to LGA; she waved me to the next open cab.

"Hey bud, how's traffic looking on the Van Wyck?" I asked the cabbie.

He grimaced. "The usual. Not good."

"Well, there's a plane leaving LaGuardia in 40 minutes and it might be my only shot to get home tonight. Think it's doable?"

He thought for a short second and then nodded determinedly. "Get in, I'll get you there!"

God bless New York cabbies; this guy was a pro among pros, flying like the wind, shifting lanes, slithering through snarled traffic, tapping the horn every time a hapless motorist contemplated getting in his way, jumping off the Van Wyck at one point to leapfrog a mess of brake lights in a single bound down a surface street. Ten minutes in he looked back, grinned, and said "You'll make it, no problem!" Sure enough, we pulled up to terminal C at 4:08pm, only 23 minutes after leaving JFK during rush hour! I thanked the guy profusely, wished him a Merry Christmas, and gave him $50 for my $23 fare. I walked up to the gate just as the gate agent called my name with a seat to Minneapolis, and had just enough time to stow my bags, sit down, and text Dawn that I was coming home. We had a lovely Christmas Eve together, and early the next morning we headed to my folks' place for a really nice family Christmas with all five of my siblings and their kids and significant others.

I'll look back on my time in New York fondly, and there's probably a good chance that I'll be back at some point. In the meantime, I'm really going to enjoy my much improved commute to and from work - 25 minutes down US-212 and I-494, maybe as much as an hour in bad traffic!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Bringing Her Home

On December 8th, 2014, Dawn and I became the proud new owners of a Piper Pacer. It was a day I'd been dreaming of for over 20 years. However, there was one small detail to take care of before I could enjoy my new purchase: it was in Kalispell, Montana, some 880nm away from its new home at Flying Cloud Airport (KFCM). This is a long flight in any 110 knot airplane, but crossing the Rockies and northern plains in wintertime is especially challenging. Kalispell itself often gets socked in for weeks at a time; Pacific storms packing high winds and heavy snowfall alternate with high-pressure systems that fill every valley with dense, long-lasting fog. I needed a 2-3 day weather window that coincided with a stretch of days off work.

There was one other wrinkle. When I priced out insurance, a couple companies would have covered me without a checkout, but I ended up choosing a $400 cheaper policy that required my first 2 hours and 15 landings be with a CFI. Fortunately, Jeff Skiles had already asked if he could come along, and he happens to hold an active CFI certificate and has some Pacer time to boot. I put him on my insurance; his pilot history form reportedly caused a bit of a twitter in the AOPA insurance office, but they didn't hold his one $40m claim against him. Jeff's schedule was wide open as he was temporarily between gigs, but his US/AA flight bennies wouldn't get him to Kalispell, meaning he had to ride on a buddy pass I borrowed from a friend. Thus, flight loads to FCA became a consideration.

Our first try was December 10th. There was dense fog in the area for several days prior, but it looked like there would be a window to get out of Kalispell and across the Rockies. After that the prognosis was a bit iffy. Worse, there was no direct flight to Kalispell that day, and the flights going through Salt Lake City filled up in the last 24 hours. We decided to postpone and try again the following Monday, December 15th. There was a direct, wide-open flight to Kalispell, so the main question was the weather. I obsessed over it constantly during the weekend, reading and rereading the NWS forecast discussions. A Pacific storm was moving through, and the main question was whether we could get out of Kalispell before the fog rolled back in. Once across the Rockies, the prognosis looked excellent.

On the appointed day, I stashed my truck in our new T-hangar and Dawn dropped me off at MSP, where I met Jeff. We got on the FCA flight without a problem, and by the time we descended over the Rockies a low overcast had faded and the valley was bathed with afternoon sunlight. The Pacer's prior owner, Paul, was understandably emotional over the impending departure of his plane, but went over the box of parts he was including, gave me a few last tips, and shook my hand as we posed for a picture. I finished a thorough preflight, Jeff and I strapped in, I started up, and with one last wave to Paul we taxied away. A few minutes later we were airborne and headed northeast to Columbia Falls, where Highway 2 enters the Rockies.

Crossing the mountains turned out to be quite easy, for it was clear other than a few low scattered clouds on the western side. We climbed to a lofty 9500'; the Pacer performed quite well in the cold air despite being somewhat heavy. We followed the highway southeast and then cut northeast through Marias Pass, where turned towards Great Falls. Jeff had his iPad running Foreflight with a Stratus ADS-B box, which is how we got the new TAF for GTF as soon as it was issued. The airport was clear for the time being, but the new forecast called for dense fog starting around midnight and not clearing until noon. Helena, on the other hand, had no forecast fog whatsoever. We decided to go there instead though it was about 50 miles out of the way. We arrived shortly before sundown; my first landing in the Pacer wasn't really pretty, but it wasn't bad enough to scare me, either (I can't speak for Jeff!). I sprung for a heated hangar so we wouldn't have to deal with frost or preheating in the morning.

After a hearty meal and a good sleep, we were back at the airport by 7am and airborne at sunup. As forecast, Helena was beautifully clear and Great Falls was thoroughly socked in. Billings, also, was reporting low IFR. Lewistown, 107nm east of Helena, was clear and forecast to remain so. After that there were very few reporting stations to the east, but the weather was generally pretty crummy. We landed in Lewistown after a very nice morning flight, refueled, and discussed our plan. It seemed like the worst weather was southeast, while most airports to the northeast (Glasgow, Wolf Point, Sidney) were reporting marginal VFR. We ended up following US-87 east to Mosby, then veering north along the Musselshell River to Lake Fort Peck, and then east to Sidney, where we refueled. Some of it was fairly marginal VFR under low ceilings, but with good visibility underneath. After Sidney the ceilings steadily increased to several thousand feel. Initially we were headed towards Jamestown ND but then Jeff's ADS-B alerted us that unforecast snow had started falling in the vicinity and was rapidly reducing visibility. We headed southeast for Aberdeen SD instead.

We refueled and took off from Aberdeen at sunset, and so I got to test out the Pacer's night-flying capability. It has old-school red flood lighting that actually works quite nicely. There were a few patches of snow in southwestern MN which the ADS-B helped us stay clear of. I was pretty impressed by the system and will likely be getting it in the future (of course there's the ADS-B Out mandate to contend with but that's a rant for another day). We flew over my neighborhood and then down the Minnesota River, landing at Flying Cloud at 7pm - 8.8 flying hours from Helena in 10 hours by the clock, not bad at all with three frigid refueling stops. In all, I reckoned that our weather- and terrain-prompted zig-zagging added about 170nm to the great circle distance from KGPI to KFCM. We made it home early enough for Jeff to drive home to Madison the same night.

The next day I went back out to the hangar and just putzed around with the airplane for a while. It was pretty hard to believe she was mine. The weather cleared a bit so I called up my brother Steve up to go flying, and we took my pup Piper along on his first airplane ride. The pooch got a bit excited but didn't do anything too disastrous until after the flight; then he puked all over the front seat of my truck. A few nights later he went up again, this time with Dawn and I as we looked at Christmas lights - just like I'd written about in that month's Flying magazine. And then in January, we took the Pacer out to western MN for a family gathering, in which I took several of Dawn's cousins and their kids for plane rides. All told, I have just over 20 hours on the Pacer so far, and I've really enjoyed getting to know her (my landings are much improved). It's been a wonderful first month with an airplane of our own.











Monday, January 19, 2015

The Search

When Dawn and I decided to get serious about buying an airplane at the end of last summer, I sat down and made a list of my search criteria:
  • 4-place taildragger, 2+2 useful load, classic design.
  • Electrical system, Night VFR capable.
  • Less than $30k, preferably closer to $25k.
  • Less than 1000 hrs on engine since major overhaul.
  • Less than 5000 hrs on airframe since new.
  • Active type club / well-supported airframe.
The last requirement eliminated some of the rarer types like the Aeronca Sedan, Fairchild 24, or Bellanca Cruisemaster. The price requirement put the Maule M-series, Cessna 180/185, or (be still my heart!) Cessna 190/195 out of reach. This left us with essentially three serious contenders:
  • Cessna 170. I have about 75 hours in type, love the way it flies and lands, love the art deco styling, and found the cabin to be very comfortable, moreso than later 172s. It has modern aluminum construction and parts are readily available. The Continental C-145/O-300 is a very smooth, relatively quiet engine; it is, however, somewhat orphaned and more expensive to maintain. The C170 is a fairly slow airplane, with ponderous takeoff and climb performance. It is somewhat load limited. And asking prices tend to be quite high unless it's a beater ($25k up through around $45k). 
  • Stinson 108. I've never flown a Stinson but have always heard they're one of the nicest-flying light planes and best-behaved taildraggers out there. They're big and comfortable inside. I like the styling, at least on the 108-0s, -1s, and -2s (the -3 has a comically large vertical stabilizer and rudder that ruins its appearance in my opinion). The -2 and -3 (the 165 hp versions) will haul a load and are reasonably fast. The airframe is robust, has very few ADs, and is well-supported by Univair. The Franklin engines are smooth and reliable (at least the heavy-case versions are), but unfortunately it's an utterly orphaned engine. Finding serviceable crankshafts and camshafts is particularly difficult. The number of mechanics familiar with these engines is small and dwindling. 
  • Piper PA-20 Pacer (or PA-22/20 converted Tri-Pacer). First and foremost, these airplanes are known to be good deals. One can easily find a creampuff Pacer for $10-15k less than a comparable C-170. They are diminutive airplanes, belonging to the short-wing family of Pipers with a wing-span under 30 feet and length of barely 20 feet. The cabin is smaller than both Stinsons and C-170s. They are, however, quite efficient, cruising faster than either other design and using less fuel to do it. They were built in great numbers and parts availability is excellent, and there are still many mechanics familiar with the design. The higher-powered versions use the extremely common and well-supported Lycoming O-320, a 4-cylinder engine that's not quite as smooth as the O-300 or Franklin 165 but is cheaper to maintain than either. These airplanes have a reputation for landing fast and being squirrely on the ground as they are quite short-coupled. You gotta be on your game when landing a Pacer. 
One friend that helped me quite a bit during the search process was Jeff Skiles, the writer for EAA's Sport Aviation magazine (and goose-slayer of some renown!). I met Jeff at OSH this year and we've kept in touch since. Having owned several old airplanes including a C-140, Waco YOC, and now a Cessna 185, Jeff is quite familiar with the process and pitfalls of buying a classic airplane. He urged me to take my time, knowing that there would be a surge of available airplanes come springtime. He suggested I search with ease of maintenance as a first-time owner first and foremost in my mind, and to be especially careful with the paperwork - logbooks, ownership records, and 337s. He'd had a few problems in that area with the Waco.

I mostly looked at ads on barnstormers.com, in Trade-A-Plane, and on the various type club websites. I also found a few local examples on craigslist, airport bulletin boards, and by talking to area pilots. Generally I just looked at the ads to get an idea of asking prices, but occasionally made an inquiry into an interesting-looking example within reasonable flying distance. In most cases the best-looking planes were already sold, had a potential buyer on the way, or had problems that weren't mentioned in the ad. There were a couple times that a plane I'd otherwise be interested in looking at was merely too far from a convenient commercial airport, or my work schedule didn't give me the necessary time to go take a look.

The first plane that I got serious about was a 1948 Stinson 108-2 just across the border in Wisconsin. It appeared to be in beautiful shape, and the owner had done some nice upgrades. The 165 hp Franklin had been overhauled 8 years and 400 hours ago by a well-known Franklin guru in northern Minnesota. The asking price was $21,000. In the course of my discussions with the owner, it came to light that the engine was a now-rare light-case Franklin, which is prone to cracking and subject to a 100-hour recurring Airworthiness Directive (AD). A lot of Stinson old-timers subscribe to the belief that if a 65-year-old engine hasn't cracked yet, it's not going to, but others will tell you that there are so few light cases left that there's no real data set on whether it's still a problem (most owners replaced the light case years ago). I shied away until the owner offered to lower the price to $18,000. I decided to at least go look at and fly the airplane. The night before, though, I looked up the plane in the FAA aircraft registry and discovered that its registration was expired, and thus illegal to fly. I cancelled the appointment and, after further consideration, decided not to reschedule. A cracked case would likely prompt a $20k+, year-long repower project - not what I wanted to risk for my first ownership experience, not even at an otherwise bargain price.

A few weeks later, I came across a 1953 Piper PA-22/20 on Trade-A-Plane for $25,000. It had 3200 hours total time and 700 hours on the 160 horsepower engine, and was hangared in Kalispell, Montana. That was probably what caught my attention most - though Kalispell is a good jaunt from Minneapolis, my airline (or rather, NewCo) flies a direct flight there. The plane also had some desirable "bush mods" like larger-than-standard tires, vortex generators, and a skylight a-la-Cub. The photos made it look a bit dingy, though, and I was on the fence about going to see it. I talked to the owner on the phone and he seemed like a decent guy, and indicated he was flexible on price and mostly wanted to see the plane go to someone who would use it. I had a spare day before heading to New York for work, so I headed out west for a look. The plane turned out to be in better condition than it appeared in the photos, the logbooks and paperwork appeared to be in order (except for an expired transponder check), the engine started right up, and the plane flew and performed very well (except for a bit of tailwheel shimmy). I told the owner I would be in touch.

The next day, I ordered a title and record search. The title came back clean - no liens and a clear chain of ownership. The registration records looked correct, and most importantly, the airplane's many modifications over the years were all well-documented by Form 337s filed with the FAA. It had started life as a Tri-Pacer 135, was damaged by a windstorm and a short landing in the 70s and repaired both times, was converted to a Pacer taildragger in the 80s, was repowered with 160hp in the 90s, and had the other mods added in the 00s. Jeff reviewed both the registration and airworthiness file, which was helpful as I barely knew what I was looking for.

The only major thing I discovered was that this particular engine (O-320-B2A) is subject to a recurring AD on its crankshaft; the inner bore must be inspected for corrosion every five years. As it turned out, some surface pitting had been found on the most recent annual. This doesn't mean the crankshaft needs to be replaced immediately, but it must now be inspected for cracks annually or every 100 hrs, whichever comes first, for up to twelve years. In talking to owners at the Short Wing Piper Club, it sounded like the inspection isn't a big deal, and absolutely no-one has been finding cracks in their crankshafts. The AD sounds like it was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction on the FAA's part.

On reflection, I decided the plane was everything Dawn and I were looking for. It wasn't perfect but it appeared to be good enough to serve us reliably for many years while we slowly upgrade it. I offered the owner $22,000 (subject to a pre-purchase inspection), he countered at $23,000, and I accepted contingent on a fresh transponder check and re-arching the tailwheel spring to take care of the shimmy. The owner agreed to these conditions and the next week was a flurry of bank paperwork, finding insurance and a hangar, and lining up a mechanic for the pre-buy. As it turned out, I was a bit less than impressed with the guy we chose to do it, and I really wonder just how much he really looked at for his $600. He gave me a short list of nits and said his overall impression was of a solid, well-maintained airplane that was a good value for the price. We closed the deal on December 8th.

So, yeah. I actually bought the very first airplane I seriously looked at. It's been a huge education already. Did I make the right move? We'll see. I have just over 20 hours on the airplane and really like it and think it's a great fit for us. I also have a future upgrade list with 19 items on it, the total cost of which is about twice the purchase price of the airplane. The good news is that it flies just fine as-is, and there will be plenty of time to "make it my own."

Next up: Bringing the Pacer Home


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Biting The Bullet

Q: What are the two happiest days of a pilot's life?
A: The day he buys his first airplane, and the day he sells it.

I've been saying for years now that sole ownership of a recreational airplane is a money-wasting extravagance for 90% of the pilots out there. Even "affordable" airplanes have fairly high fixed costs, meaning that your very first hour of flight time is 5 to 10 times as expensive as the rental rate for an equivalent aircraft. Renting is more cost-effective than sole ownership for anyone who flies less than, say, 8-10 hours a month - which is virtually everyone I know who flies for fun. A huge portion of the GA fleet doesn't fly more than an hour or two a month. Besides the inefficiency of it, the disuse is hard on the airplanes and their engines, adding to maintenance costs and woes.

Despite all that, most pilots dream of owning their own airplane, and many present owners seem to be continually looking to trade up to something bigger, faster, and yet more expensive. I'm no exception; for years I've made a daily habit of perusing barnstormers.com, particularly looking at 4-place taildraggers. Don't get me wrong, I like belonging to the Yellow Cub Club. I've had a blast flying the Cub, and the flying club arrangement appeals greatly to my thrifty nature. Having a bunch of pilots to share the fixed expenses means that flying clubs are cheaper than renting after only 2 or 3 hours a month, and you generally get better maintenance, more flexible scheduling, the camaraderie of the club, and a measure of the pride of ownership. It's still not quite as good as owning a plane, though. I got a taste of that when I was flying the Cessna 170A. I missed having a plane guaranteed available whenever I felt like going flying, with the flexibility to take it on longer adventures. I missed having four seats, night flying equipment, and a measure of cross-country capability. The Cub is based at Airlake, a 45-minute drive from our house; I missed having a plane at Flying Cloud, only 15 minutes away. And frankly, I kinda wanted a plane of my own merely for the sake of being able to say, "She's mine."

When I talked to Dawn about this, it turned out she feels the same way, even though she loves the Cub as much as I do. Like me, she prefers flying a classic taildragger over a modern spam can. Had there been a local flying club or partnership formed around a 4-place taildragger at FCM, I probably would have gone in that direction; the cost advantage over ownership outweigh the occasional inconveniences. But there are no such clubs in the local area, and I couldn't find anyone looking for a partner, either. So our choices were to continue with the Yellow Cub Club, or buy a plane of our own.

I did some investigation and ran the numbers:
  • $25k Airplane, $15k financed at 2.99%/60 months: $280/mo
  • Liability & Hull Insurance: $65/mo
  • T-Hangar at FCM: $200/mo.
  • Annual & Routine Maintenance: $125/mo
  • Fuel: $45/hour
  • Overhaul Fund: $10/hour
I concluded that my very first hour each month would cost a whopping $725. However, for $1200 a month, I could fly 10 hours at $120 an hour, which is comparable to older C-172 and Piper PA28 rental aircraft in my area. Dawn and I talked and decided that if we had our own airplane 15 minutes from home, we would use it 10 hours a month. We could afford to up our flying budget from $200/mo to $1200/mo. We discussed the fact that an airplane could easily blow the budget above with big, expensive surprises. And then we decided to bite the bullet and go for it. The search began in earnest. First, I wanted to narrow our criteria down a bit and do some research.

Next post: The Search. To be continued....


Thursday, January 01, 2015

Three New for the New Year

Good Lord, can you believe that it's already 2015? I can't; time seems to speed up as I get older. Dawn and I are celebrating New Years in Portland with our good friends Brad and Amber. Like myself and a great many of my flying friends, Brad moved from the regional airlines to the majors this year. Also like many of these friends, we started around the same place (instructing together at ADP) and our career paths have sometimes intertwined, at other times gone in very different directions, and yet we advanced to the next level within a month of each other. We agreed that the process of training, IOE, and probation/reserve/commuting made this year seem far shorter than the last few years in which we were senior in our respective positions. In my case, the last two or three months have seen a few other major developments that put me decidedly behind on this blog. I don't want longtime followers to have to wait to read about them in my Flying column, so here they are all at once: Three new developments as 2014 rolls over to 2015.

1. I'm off probation and (almost) back in MSP!

I completed 400 flight hours in the Mad Dog in early December, finishing my probationary period! Practically, this doesn't really mean a great deal, merely that I'm entitled to union representation in case of disciplinary action. The reality is that if you screw up in an especially egregious manner, the airline will attempt to fire you even after you're off probation, and while on probation you still generally have to screw up in an rather egregious manner to get fired. In my case, I don't see myself acting much differently after probation. But it's a milestone nonetheless, and one that allows you to breathe a bit of a sigh of relief that you're not quite so under the microscope; you've essentially been accepted as a permanent part of your new airline. I was allowed to read the probationary pilot reports submitted by the captains I've flown with thus far, and they were all rather complimentary ("He really likes to hand fly!" read one of the latest).

Concurrently, I was finally converted to my new base of MSP for the February bid period. I wrote about being awarded MSP several months ago, but the contract allows the company quite a lot of flexibility in when they actually make the award effective. Because there were so many New York-based Mad Dog FOs attempting to get back to MSP, the company couldn't let us all go at once without severely affecting their New York schedule. So, I had to wait a bit, but a month from now I'll again be driving to work. Nice!

Taken with a non-wifi camera...100% legal, probation or not!

Isn't that beautiful!? Oh yeah, the sunset is nice too!

2. There's a new Yellow Cub in the Yellow Cub Club

I've written extensively here and in Flying about my adventures in N77532, the Yellow Cub Club's 1946 Piper J3C Cub. This plane had been in the club since the mid 1970s, the last time it had been recovered - and the use was showing. We were faced with the prospect of being without an airplane for a year or more while we restored 532. The thing is, we're a flying club, not a group of old airplane restorers. The good news was that we've had excellent financial stewardship over the last few years, resulting in very healthy reserve levels. Ultimately we decided that we could afford to sell 532 and then buy a pretty, already-restored Cub. This all happened over a 3-week period in October. Happily, 532 went to a friend of mine, a guy I knew from my last airline who was in my class at my current airline. It's in South Dakota and is being flown by a newly-formed flying club that plans to fly it for a year or two more and then restore it. There's a good chance I'll get to fly 532 again.

The airplane we acquired as 532's replacement is actually older, a 1940 model J3C, but was restored in the mid 1990s and late 2000s. NC28092 is a very pretty bird - one I'd be happy to display at any fly-in. She's also a bit sprightlier than 532 despite only having a 65 hp Continental - perhaps due to lighter construction, perhaps due to less time since overhaul. She cruises quite easily at a solid 80mph. I hope this fine example of the breed makes it to Oshkosh in the next few years, though she probably won't be flown by me for reasons I'll outline below. In fact, I plan to sell my share in the Yellow Cub Club come spring, despite being their new maintenance officer.

 
One of my last times flying N77532, with my father-in-law Tom. I flew 7 family members this late-summer weekend. 

 
NC28092, the new Yellow Cub in the Yellow Cub Club!

 Very nice Cub!

3a. We have a new Piper (dog)!

Dawn and I have been talking about getting a pup for ages but have delayed because of how much we're gone from home. After Dawn's brother's dog gave birth to a litter of 7, we finally decided to just make the adjustments necessary to bring a pooch into our lives. Dawn visited her brother in October and picked out the cutest, calmest, and most loving pup in the litter. Well, the "calm" part was certainly temporary, for shortly after taking him home he started letting out his alter-ego personality that I call "Demon Dog!" Regardless, he's still very cute and loving, and even in his persnickety moods gets a lot of laughs out of us. After a lot of deliberation we decided on calling him Piper, largely Dawn's choice as I was resistant to an aviation-centric name. Once I met him I realized that the name suited him perfectly. It has, however, caused a bit of consternation among our friends because of another addition to our family since the pooch....

Piper at about ten weeks old. It's crazy how much he's grown in the six weeks since this.



 3b. We have a new Piper (airplane)!

This is pretty crazy, I can still barely believe it even as I type it. Dawn and I are airplane owners. Not just 1/12th owners, as we are in the club Cub; sole owners of our very own airplane, a 1953 Piper PA-22/20-160. I'll write more about the process in a separate entry, but we've known for a long time that we would eventually buy an airplane, and this fall decided that the timing was right to start getting serious. I wasn't expecting it to happen so quickly, though; we had really just started looking. This one was exactly what I was looking for and came at a very good price. A friend, fellow aviation writer, and airline pilot of some notoriety helped me ferry it home from Montana - more about that in the next entry. But long story short, there's a pretty little yellow airplane all of our own, sitting in its own hangar at Flying Cloud Airport (FCM), awaiting some seriously awesome adventures together! Dawn and I have big plans for trips with Piper (dog) and the Pacer (airplane). Piper the dog has actually already flown in Pacer the airplane twice, and seems to like the back seat rather well!

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Busted Pilots of Instagram

By now I'm sure many of you have seen "The Pilots of Instagram" piece that's been going around the interwebs. I'm choosing not to post a link because the author printed the names and airlines of the pilots involved, even in cases where it's pretty clear that safety was not compromised and not even certain that regulations were violated. Even if the pilots did mess up, viral press like this has the potential to ruin careers where more measured discipline might be more appropriate. You can find the article easily enough if you want to.

That said, the piece was surprisingly accurate and nuanced for a general news source (if that's what you call it; I'd never heard of Quartz before this). The author had a solid grasp on the particulars of the new FAR 121.542 regulation and how it interfaces with the more established sterile cockpit rule. I dare say the author has much better knowledge of the legalities of in-flight photo-taking than most airline pilots do. I wrote about the new regulations back in June, when I learned about them several months after they took effect. Since then most airline pilots to whom I've mentioned the new 121.542 were either unaware it existed or had an inaccurate idea of its provisions (erroneously thinking that only laptops were banned, that phones are ok in airplane mode, etc). Most airlines, it seems, did little to educate their pilots about the new law.

In some cases, such as my airline, many personal electronic devices were already prohibited by the Flight Operations Manual (FOM). Though it contains airline policy, the FOM is approved by the FAA and technically has the full force of the FARs (and even supersedes them, where there is conflicting guidance). Despite this, it is my experience that pilots tend to be less heedful of FOM rules than the FARs, and in many cases the FOM has considerable grey areas open to interpretation, whereas the FAA's stance on most major regs is well known. Here's a good example. In my June post, I wrote that my airline's FOM already prohibited any camera with electronic functions, which would rule out nearly every modern example. Later, a check airman pointed out that my interpretation hinged on the meaning of a single word, and that based on the use of that word elsewhere in the FOM and the FARs, this provision would not appear to prohibit cameras that were otherwise permitted by FAR 121.542 (that is, cameras with no wireless capability). So my new understanding is that in a non-sterile phase of flight, I can take a photo with my Nikon D5000 SLR, as it has no capability that would render it a "personal wireless communications device." I could then, after the flight is over, insert the SD card into my laptop and upload the photo to Instagram, or Facebook, or use it for one of my Flying articles, all without being in technical violation of the regulation.

There's another loophole mentioned in my previous piece that very well may have been at play with some of the photos and videos referenced in this article. The FAA specifically said in the final ruling that 121.542 does not apply to jumpseaters. When I see a photo or a video that appears to be taken from near aircraft centerline rather than the left or right side of the cockpit, I tend to suspect it was taken by a jumpseater. For that matter, what of a first-generation GoPro with no wireless capability that is set up on a suction mount in non-sterile flight and then allowed to run through landing and all the way to the gate? Depending on the provisions of that airline's FOM, I can see one arguing that this meets the letter of the regs. In most cases, it's very difficult to tell just from the photo or video whether it was taken legally. Even in seemingly egregious case, such as a photo on short final, it can be difficult to tell whether safety was compromised. What if it was a still from a video shot by the aforementioned mounted camera? If mounted out of the way, I find it hard to accept that any lives put in danger.


Here's the thing though. It's one thing to take a photo or video in the privacy of your own cockpit under circumstances that are arguably safe and legal. It is another thing to put that photo or footage, with identifying information, on a website that allows anyone to view it (or in the case of Instagram, encourages maximizing public views). I myself have had to become a lot more careful about this over the years. I once took a picture at PHL while parked on a taxiway with engines shut down on an extended ground hold, and later posted it to this blog. The FOM of the airline I was with at the time made clear this was a non-sterile period, and allowed us to open the cockpit door under these circumstances. I was immediately lambasted by a commenter for violating sterile cockpit, and why not? I certainly couldn't prove that we weren't in a sterile phase of ground operations. Likewise, the outed pilots of Instagram that posted landing footage taken from aircraft centerline can't prove that a jumpseater was holding that camera. When it comes to the court of public opinion, the concept of innocent until proven guilty definitely does not apply; nor does it hold much weight when facing company discipline.

Honestly, I really dislike that my job has come to this, that recording the neat things that I do and see on a daily basis and sharing them with my friends would put my livelihood at risk. It is what it is; going against the grain and posting this stuff online is almost inevitably going to end up with someone trying to destroy you. I'll certainly continue to share inflight pics and vids with you, my friends...but they're generally going to be taken from a single-engine airplane flying under FAR 91. For the past few years that's been my flying club Cub. As of today, however, you're going to start seeing another pretty yellow airplane cropping up in my multimedia offerings. More on that in my next post!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sixteen Again

At my new airline, as at Horizon, many of the captains I am flying with are my parents' age or a little younger. Most of these have adult children and part of the standard "getting to know you chit-chat" is inquiring how many kids they have, what they do for work, what their marital status is, and whether any grandkids are on the way. Most of these children's lives were spent while their father (or mother) worked at a major airline. Which is to say: most had an upper-middle-class upbringing, often involving private schools and world travel and the chance to attend a good university. They tend to fall in either the brilliant-and-going-places category or else good-for-nothing-and-probably-moving-home, at least in their parent's retelling. What I not yet heard is even a single example of a child who is now an airline pilot. This makes sense, in a way. Most captains in this age bracket have offspring that came of age around or just after 9/11, when the airlines were in full economic free-fall and pilot group after pilot group was facing bankruptcy or liquidation. Nobody in this situation would encourage their kids to follow in their footsteps. Many have said as much.

Lately, though, I've also flown with quite a few newer captains who've been with the airline for "only" 14 or 15 years. These pilots suffered the effects of 9/11 much more acutely than their senior brethren; many spent months or years on furlough, and they've stagnated in the right seat since. However, their kids were young at the time and are just now getting to the age where they have to pick a career field. Surprisingly, I've flown with three or four younger captains whose kids are actively pursing being an airline pilot. They're either taking flight lessons, are planning to, or are a Private Pilot already, and are selecting an aviation college for their advanced training. All have their parents' enthusiastic support despite the formidable costs involved. Some of this is probably attributable to the upbeat attitude around my airline at the moment. There's a lot of hiring and upgrading going on, the company is making a lot of money, the profit-sharing checks are handsome, and the pilot contract has been slowly inching up towards pre-9/11 levels. My friends at other major airlines report that morale there is considerably worse, understandable since they're all still working through the merger glitches that my airline had to deal with five years ago.

It's made me wonder what I would do if I was sixteen again and looking for a career to pursue, knowing what I know now. When I was sixteen in 1997, the major airline bankruptcies and furloughs were starting to fade from memory, profits and hiring were on the upswing, and Kit Darby was declaring that the biggest pilot shortage in history was right around the corner. I loved flying and thought I was good at it. The idea of flying heavy iron across the world fascinated me. Flight training was a lot of money even then, but I figured the eventual payoff justified it. Had I been able to predict 9/11 and its fallout, had I known that payrates would be gutted and retirements stolen and huge swaths of the domestic networks outsourced to lowest-bidding regional airlines and flown for inferior pay with zero job stability, I'm not sure my decision would have been the same. Had I foreseen it would take 15 years of hard work and low pay and cross-country moves and occasionally dangerous flying to get to the majors, I might not have taken the leap. If my gift of prophecy had included insight into the runaway executive pay in this country coupled with the continuous shrinking of the middle class, I might have gone to business school.

It's probably good I didn't know the future, because I've enjoyed life and flying over the last fifteen years despite the career bumps along the way, and I seem to have arrived at the majors at a good time. But what would I tell a sixteen-year-old version of myself starting out right now? That consolidation has ensured continued profitability and stability at the remaining major carriers for years to come? That the mandatory retirement numbers are incontrovertible and the pilot shortage is real this time? That the upheaval in the regional sector will have played itself out by the time he's qualified and he can expect a more defined, secure career path? Or would I say that the inexorable march of automation has ensured the continual decline of the airline pilot's worth, or that the capacity discipline exhibited by the major airlines of late will attract new entrants and fresh upheaval, or that cabotage is inevitable and the US airline industry will go the way of the US maritime industry? Hell, for all I know airliners could be pilotless in 30 years. By the same token medicine could be automated by then, tort reform may put thousands of lawyers out of work, or the revolution could come and MBAs will swing from every lamppost. I don't know what's going to happen.

I do know this: Aviation has been an unstable, irrational industry since the day Wilbur cracked up on Flight Four and will likely continue to be thus for a long time to come, consolidation be damned. Even in the salad days airline pilots were known to bitch about pay and working conditions, and will continue to do so until they're finally replaced by robots. Very few pilots will have smooth careers from beginning to end. Most of those getting into aviation for money, lifestyle, prestige, or excitement will find one or all of those things lacking at some point in their career, and it may be enough to kill whatever love of flying they had in the first place. For those who love to fly, though, and can't imagine doing else, the joy of flight transcends what's going on in the industry at any given moment. If you are that sort of person, and you can be happy despite low income, birthdays and holidays spent away from family, and uncertainty about the future, you are probably well-suited for a career in aviation. The good news is that at some point along the way, there's a good chance that you'll happen into a sweet well-paid gig that affords a decent lifestyle. As long as those things are considered side benefits, and the flying is the main goal, it's still a pretty decent way to make a living. Of course, if you're an airplane-mad sixteen-year-old like I was, you probably don't need some old codger to tell you that.