Monday, October 30, 2006

A Stormy Halloween

From my buddy Chris comes this picture of the best dorky pilot Halloween costume ever:

Yes, they are cold and warm fronts, respectively. And yes, they are occluding. How cool is that!?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Aviatrix, I Presume?

Today I flew to [Anonymous Canadian City] to meet up with Aviatrix, author (and starlet) of Cockpit Conversation, one of the most popular aviation blogs today. I've met a number of readers before, but Aviatrix is the first fellow blogger I've met. I'm quite happy to report that 1) Aviatrix is indeed a woman; 2) She isn't a serial killer, or at least I'm not her type, victim-wise; and 3) She is as as funny and insightful in real life as on her blog.

After I verified these three facts, Aviatrix press-ganged me into a workout that I'll leave vague (see: anonymous canadian city) except to say it involved a whole lot of stairs, around 3000 total vertical feet worth. I'd say she's getting pretty well recovered from those blood clots. Try and steal Aviatrix's stuff now, teenage miscreants of the world!

After that, we headed downtown to have some Indian food and afterward went to a bar where we could watch airplanes take off and land. Yes, you've surmised correctly: we were in a Canadian city with a downtown and Indian restaurants and airplanes! Now that I wasn't gasping for air, I was better able to interrogate Aviatrix on all the details my readers want to know, like "Do you have that B737 job lined up yet?" and "When is 'Aviatrix, the book' coming out?" and "Just who is Badger Airlines, anyways?"

Eh, never mind that....I know what my readers really want to know: What did I think of Aviatrix's medically mandated sexy compression stockings? Readers, I came through for you on this one. In the aviation blogosphere scoop of the year, I got a picture of Aviatrix's "prescription for style."

Is there an aviation blogosphere equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize? I'd like to toss my hat in that ring...

Anyways, it was fun to put a face to the stories and grill Aviatrix on all the fun details she couldn't blog about. I'm eager for Aviatrix to get her unrestricted medical back, start her next job, and continue to wow the blogosphere with her many aeronautical adventures. If you're in Canada and know of a multi-crew turbine job, preferably in the western provinces, send Aviatrix an email. Her qualifications meet most such positions, I believe.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Montana Rockies Tour

On Sunday, the cold front had moved through Montana without snowing on Billings. It had, however, given much of the Montana Rockies a brilliant new coat of snow. The flight back to Seattle was gorgeous for scenic viewing, with 100+ mile visibility - again, courtesy of the cold front.

Taking off to the west from Billings, the first range you encounter is the Crazy Mountains. They are rather isolated on the high plain, with no geographical connection to the main spine of the Rockies - an orphan of a range.

South of the Crazies are the Beartooth Mountains. As the name suggests, this area is known for having a very high concentration of bears, grizzlies in this case. Nobody ventures far in without bear mace or a firearm. To the west of the Beartooths, the Yellowstone River meanders southward. If you look carefully, in the far distance you can see Yellowstone Lake and the Tetons.

West of the Crazies is the Bridger Range. Near the southern terminus of this range is the town of Bozeman.

I somehow managed to pass Butte without taking a picture of the Continental Divide. I must've been too fascinated with the Berkeley Pit.

This is the Bitterroot Valley near Hamilton, Montana. On the far (western) side is the Bitterroot Range and the border with Idaho.

A closer look at the Bitterroots.

With the Rockies far behind, a nice Puget Sound sunset on descent into Seattle.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Saga of My Long Lost Cellphone

Some of you may remember that I lost my cell phone back in August while jumpseating around visiting friends. I had left it on a railway platform in Hurst, Texas (just west of Dallas), and it was gone by the time I went back to look for it. I called the railroad's lost and found office for a few weeks, then gave up. I wasn't expecting to get it back.

Yesterday a friend called and told me that my cell phone had been found. Some cop called him from my contact list and asked if he knew anybody who'd lost a cell phone in Texas. My buddy passed along the officer's phone number, which I called today. I was quite eager to find out what adventures my cellphone had without me.

It turns out that the cop is a liason officer at a high school in Crowley, TX, just south of Fort Worth. My cell phone was turned into him after being found in a girl's restroom at the school. After perusing the contact list, he realized that the phone probably did not belong to a high school girl - there were too many out of state numbers, and lots of suspicious entries like "Crew Sked DO NOT ANSWER." He called one of the out of state entries to trace the phone back to me.

It turns out that after I deactivated the phone, the thief never bothered to reactivate it. I assume she was dissapointed to find out it didn't have a SIM card and could only be activated with Verizon. Why she still kept it all this time is beyond me. According to the liason officer, she took quite a few photos with it - including a self-portrait in a mirror!!! So he knows exactly who the thief is. Hopefully he rescues her from a life of crime, because with that level of intelligence she doesn't have much of a future in it.

So against all odds, it seems like I'll be getting my cell phone back. If high school girls in Canada are anywhere near as dumb as in Crowley, I'd say Aviatrix stands a good chance of getting her belongings back, too.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Back to the Salt Mines

I got home at about 9pm last night, made dinner, uploaded lots of pictures to my last post, went to bed, slept insanely long - take that, jet lag! - and upon waking had two hours to get ready for my four day trip and get myself to the airport.

I was dangerously close to not getting back on time. I was planning on taking Delta through Atlanta (~40 seats open) with New York via Delta as my backup (~30 seats open). All the other jumpseatable flights I checked out of Frankfurt were booked full. The night before I had attempted to call Delta's Frankfurt reservations line to list myself, but met a dead end with a surly woman who spoke no English. I made a pathetic attempt in Germanglisch: "Ich bin 'jumpseater.' K├Ânnten Sie mich 'list' helfen?" She actually hung up on me! Oh well. I figured the gate agents could list me.

I showed up at Delta's ticket counter about 2 hrs 20 mins before the flight to Atlanta and requested the jumpseat. Buying the departure tax was no problem; on to the check-in counter.

"Did you make a listing?"

"No, sorry. I tried."

"Okay. We just got a brand new system for listing jumpseaters yesterday. I'm going to need my supervisor."

One supervisor came over, and then another. They sent the original agent on several errands to get documentation for the new system, but they kept coming up against problems. A man whom I assumed was the station manager came over and spoke to them rapidly in German. I understood only a few of his words but his tone made it clear he wasn't happy. The supervisors found enough documention to figure out how to list me and then proceeded to the employment verification portion of the program. More problems here. It kept coming up as my airline not having a jumpseat agreement with Delta (we most assuredly do). The reservations agent called Delta's jumpseat desk in Atlanta and verified that we do have a jumpseat agreement - but they couldn't find any record of my employment! "Sorry, sir, there's nothing we can do. Perhaps you can try another carrier."

I apologized profusely for taking up so much time and turned to go find the NWA counters. Standing in my way was the angry station manager. "I want a word with you!" he exclaimed. "You took up a lot of our time and made our passengers wait! As an airline employee, you should've been prepared. You know, I could see to it that you don't fly."

It was all I could do to keep my temper in check and continue apologizing. He backed off only after I told him that I was in fact not flying because their new jumpseat program wasn't working. "Guten tag," he said crisply and wheeled away. Hmm. Okay then, let's find me another flight...

Northwest's only flight was departing in 30 minutes - I was too late to make it. United, however, had a flight to Washington DC departing in two hours. Worth a shot. I took the tram back to Terminal 1, paid my departure tax, got listed, checked in - their verification system was working - and worked my way through the various security and customs checkpoints to the gate, which was bursting with a 747 load's worth of humanity. Several nonrevs did get on - surprising given that the flight was overbooked by 30 - but I was not one of them. I ran over to the C gates where a 747 to San Francisco was departing in an hour. This time, I got one of the last seats. Thank goodness, I was rapidly running out of options. I actually got to Portland sooner than if I'd taken Delta through ATL or JFK.


Right now I'm in Billings, Montana, on the first of my three overnights this trip. The western portion of Montana is being blanketed with snow, and forecasts indicate Billings might get some of it too. That sounds about right - it's bitterly cold here, 0 degrees celsius plus 15 knot winds. Okay, that's not bitterly cold by Butte or Edmonton standards, but a lot colder than I've been in recently. Winter, it seems, is on her way. That's not all bad. I'm eagerly watching the ski slopes as I fly over, waiting for powder to blanket them. My skis are out and ready for their annual tuneup. Have I mentioned I love the Northwest?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

There Sam Is!

(Updated 10/20 with additional pictures.)

Kudos go out to LoadmasterC141 for winning the "Where Is Sam Now" challenge, and all the other readers who figured out individual clues. If you didn't catch my comment in the last thread, I am currently in Bacharach Germany, on the Rhein River between Bingen and Koblenz. Loadmaster even figured out the building before I posted my next clue, which was going to be a picture of it. So here it is: Burg Stahleck, a 12th century castle-cum-youth hostel.

This stretch of the Rhein has more castles than they know what to do with. Most of them were originally erected to enforce the various tolls the local barons imposed on commercial river traffic. Many of them changed hands several times during the 30 Year War, were occasionally occupied by the French during their regular incursions into the Rheinland, and all were sacked and many destroyed by Napolean and the Revolutionary French Army when they came through the area. Burg Stahleck was taken by the pre-Napoleanic French Army during their occupation of the Rhine's west bank in the 1680s. They destroyed most of the fortifications, the keep, and part of the longhouse; the ruins sat for 350 years before restoration began in 1926. It wasn't completed until 1967, but what resulted has to be one of Germany's neatest Jugendherbergen. It's actually pretty modern inside, which is a little dissapointing, but you can't beat the views.

Burg Stahleck sits several hundred feet above the sleepy town of Bacharach. The region is known for its Riesling wines, and indeed every acre on sunny south-facing inclines seems to be cultivated. The town still has its original Rathouse (1368) and Post (1724 - surprisingly still bearing the Nazi Eagle painted on in 1936). The church (Sankt Peterskircke) is dominated by the few remaining walls of a beautiful chapel above it. Tourism seems to be the mainstay, although it's heavily dominated by German nationals. I've heard only a handful of English speakers, although it is of course the shoulder season. Unsurprisingly, weinstubes take the place of bierstubes here. Wednesday night some friends and I went to one and enjoyed a sampler of the local Rieslings (plus a Rotwein thrown in for good measure). This is still Germany though, so I made sure to enjoy a local Weissbier.

Thursday I took a boat down the Rhine to St. Goar, just past the famed Loreley, to explore the Rheinfels Castle. Reinfels was once the mightiest fortress on the Rhine and was considered invincible. Indeed, it was continually updated with the newest defenses after the first portion was built in the 12th century, and they were never breached. The castle was surrendered without a fight to the French Revolutionary Army in 1797. They promptly ensured they'd never have to seige it again by blowing up the fortifications and later the main castle as well. Most of the fortifications' stones were used to fortify other castles, so what remains is only a fifth of the 18th century size. It's still massive; I spent three hours exploring the ruins and could've spent more if I'd fully explored the underground fortifications and tunnels. The neatest thing is that very little of the castle is restricted from the public - you're generally free to poke around at will, and that includes squeezing through tight underground passages. You can imagine mail-clad defenders scrunched down in the galleries, crossbows at the ready, nervously peering through the arrow slits, waiting the next onslaught of beseigers.

So, that was my mini-trip to the Rhein. I'd like to go back with my wife someday and spend more time, it's very beautiful and relaxing. If anyone is interested in staying at Burg Stahleck, you can find more information here (in German), also older information in English here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Where is Sam Now?

I get into Portland at 7am today, I'm off until Saturday afternoon, and Dawn is at a math conference in Victoria all week. I'm therefore doing a little traveling via jumpseat on my days off. Can you guess where? I'll bring my camera and laptop and I think I'll have internet access, so I'll post periodic clues. Try to guess the country, state, and town - bonus points if you know the name of the building I'm staying in. First prize is dinner at Rock Bottom Brewery next time you're in Portland.

First Clue:

Second Clue:

Third Clue:

Bonus Hint: I won't be staying in the same place that I flew into. I have about an hour's train ride.

Fourth Hint:

Fifth Hint:

Friday, October 13, 2006

Corey Lidle and the Fearmongers

It is inaccurate to say I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.
-H.L. Mencken

The Corey Lidle crash in NYC had all the makings of a perfect media storm. It happened in the news capital of the nation. It happened near the site of the 9/11 attacks and was superficially similar. One of the deceased was at least semi-"famous." Finally, the crash involved a light aircraft, of which few media people - or their audience - seem to know much about. So a lot more has been made of this crash than, say, a non-celebrity pilot plowing into an apartment building in Santa Monica.

The media coverage predictably has unleashed an ignorant backlash from both politicians and the editorial pages. New York Rep. Anthony Weiner compared the East and Hudson River VFR corridors to "the Wild West"; Senator Chuck Schumer delivered this little gem of idiocy: “A smart terrorist could load up a small, little plane with biological, chemical or even nuclear material and fly up the Hudson or East rivers, no questions asked." Republican NY Governor George Pataki got in on the act by declaring that the FAA “needs to take a much tougher line” on GA flights over NYC. Mayor Bloomberg, himself a pilot, seemed to the sole voice of reason: “We have very few accidents for an awful lot of traffic. Every time you have an automobile accident, you’re not going to go and close the streets or prohibit people from driving.”

Potentially more harmful than blustering politicians was a woefully ignorant editorial from USAToday. Some choice quotes:
"The incident raises security concerns about the 220,000 small planes in the USA and the 5,500 airports that serve them. While 9/11 prompted a crackdown on commercial flying, many of the vulnerabilities of small planes have never been addressed."

"Small planes fly dangerously close to skyscrapers housing millions of residents and workers."

"The public saw Wednesday that a small aircraft crashing into a high-rise causes far less damage than a jetliner. But should a terrorist get hold of a plane and fill it with explosives or a biological weapon, the public also saw how little there is to stop him from flying into such New York icons as the United Nations headquarters and the Statute of Liberty, both of which Lidle flew past."
If you scroll down to the comments section, USAToday's readers quickly took them to the woodshed, as did Phil Boyer in an "opposing view" editorial. Anybody with a modicum of aviation knowledge would've known the facts that Boyer and others did. It wouldn't be hard for a non-pilot who's interested in the truth to get those facts. So, why didn't the politicians or the USAToday editorial staff do so? Is it possible that needless fearmongering works to their advantage? Every politician wants his constituents to see him as their "protector." This is one of those rare opportunities. The news media has long presented itself as concerned about their audience's well-being, the better to use scare tactics to gain ratings.

This concept extends well outside aviation, and it is a real threat to the survival of any democracy. Many of the founding fathers feared that democracy would lead to illogical mob rule as a result of people's own ignorance and bias. This fear resulted in the strong system of checks and balances we have today; but even this system cannot withstand the erosion of our rights if those in public office and the media use tragedies for their own advantage by magnifying the threat.


(Hat tip to Hamish)

Saturday, October 07, 2006

I (heart) Mount Hood

I see Mount Hood every time I approach Portland on the BONVL4 arrival, and it's gorgeous, but you're still about 10 miles away. On clear days, I've been known to get VFR-on-top and treat my passengers to a close up scenic tour of Mount Hood, and it is always spectacular. Still, the closest I can legally get is 4 miles from the nearest terrain 2000' below me. At that distance and at the speeds I'm flying, you don't get a true sense of the immensity of the mountain.

Yesterday I took my cousin Amanda and her friend Eli on a Mount Hood tour in a rented Cessna 172. It was the first time I've seen it up close from a light plane. I was absolutely amazed by the details I missed from just a few more miles away, such as the massive crevasses in the glaciers on the north side. At one mile away and 120 knots, you are acutely aware of just how tiny your aircraft is compared to the mountain. It's all quite breathtakingly majestic.

Flights like this remind me of what I miss about flying light planes. To be sure, the scenery from FL250 can be wonderful, but it's like looking at a master's painting from across a large room. Flying low and slow over the same landscape is like inspecting the artist's individual brushstrokes. Neither vantage point provides the complete picture; only through both do you gain a complete appreciation for the masterpiece. Seeing Mount Hood by light plane makes me want to see more of the Northwest that way. Pity it's so expensive. Perhaps once I upgrade I can look into getting a little Taylorcraft or Aeronca...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Art of Not Scaring Passengers

It sometimes surprises other passengers when I deadhead in the back of an airplane in my uniform. "Isn't it weird being back here instead of up front?" they ask. Well, no. Between the normal schedule and equipment substitutions, we deadhead quite alot. I don't particularly care whether I fly or deadhead; we're paid the same. I've had situations where I was scheduled to deadhead but was able to get a FO off their trip early by flying the leg, and I was happy to help them out. I've also sat in back when I was scheduled to fly.

Sitting in back does afford some good opportunities for people-watching. It's interesting to watch different persons' reactions to various maneuvers and sounds. One thing becomes apparent: there are still a lot of nervous flyers out there, and more than a few that are outright fearful. You see white knuckles clenching armrests on takeoff, the worried crane of the neck on every change of engine speed, the snap to attention on gear extention. Add a little turbulence to the mix and the mask of serenity slips from a few more passengers.

Seeing all this is a bit of a revelation. Flying is so utterly commonplace to me that I make little distinction between being in the air or on the ground - either way, I'm simply at work. It is easy to forget that for many of my passengers, flying is not at all commonplace but is an utterly unnatural act that goes against all other human experience. People can be conditioned until almost anything can seem normal - but where flying is concerned, many remain decidedly unconditioned.

Seeing these fearful flyers react to utterly normal flying made me reexamine my own techniques. I tend to be obsessed with efficiency to the point of being somewhat aggressive on the controls. As an example: if I'm taking off to the east on a Boise-Seattle flight, I will climb quite steeply until I get the westbound turn from Air Traffic Control. When they give me the turn, I roll directly to 25-30 degrees of bank and hold it. As soon I'm within 30 degrees of rollout heading, I'll pitch down to accelerate to cruise climb airspeed.

Now there's nothing wrong with this technique; it does save time and fuel. Efficiency, however, is but one consideration when it comes to airline flying. The peace of mind of my passengers must be another. If climbing at a less steep pitch or using a shallower bank angle makes a difference for a fearful passenger, that's well worth the extra few seconds and drops of fuel expended.


My cousin Amanda and her friend Eli are staying at my house right now; I have the entire week off work. Tomorrow I'm taking them flying in a C-172 if the weather is decent. Amanda hasn't been flying in a light aircraft in a long time; hopefully there won't be much turbulence for our Mt Hood tour. I haven't told her how badly flying the MegaWhacker screws up your ability to land Cessnas - but the landing comes last, so it's OK if I scare her then!

One interesting last note. Before taking Amanda and Eli up, I'll be flying with an instructor for single-engine landing currency. When I called him tonight to set it up, he found out I was a MegaWhacker FO and asked if I was the guy with the FL250 blog. That was a surprise! Thanks for the nice comments, Kurt, and I apologize in advance for my first few landings tomorrow...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Yellow Lights

One of the few areas that aircraft manufacturers have become fairly standardized on is warning & annunciation systems. Pretty much everybody now agrees that normal indications are represented by white or blue lettering and markings, yellow represents abnormal indications which may require attention ("caution lights"), and red indicates potentially dangerous abnormalities that must be immediately addressed ("warning lights"). Furthermore, most transport category aircraft makers have embraced the "dark cockpit" concept, which means that in normal takeoff configuration the central annunciation area should be completely dark, making any abnormalities easy to spot.

In the MegaWhacker, the annunciator panel is just below the overhead panel between the pilots, well within the normal field of vision. There are twelve red warning lights and seventy yellow caution lights, each of which have corresponding memory procedures, immediate action card items, or checklists in the emergency/abnormal book. When a caution or warning light illuminates, it is made more obvious by a flashing press-to-reset red Master Warning or yellow Master Caution light on the glareshield as well as an aural chime - three dings for warnings, one ding for caution.

It's really not uncommon to get a Master Caution. The MegaWhacker's forward baggage hold has an internal door that's right next to the lavatory door; every time passengers open the wrong door, we get a Master Caution and a "INTERNAL BAGG DOOR" caution light. The Master Caution gets the adrenaline flowing for about a half second until you look up and see it's only the bag door, and then you call the flight attendents and tell them that somebody's trying to pee on our bags. As caution lights go, it's a tame one, and it makes up the vast majority of caution lights that we see in flight.

Two weeks ago, we were descending into Boise, passing through ten thousand feet, when the Master Caution went off. We looked at the annunciator panel: "#1 ENG FADEC" was the message. At the same time, the "POWERPLANT" message appeared on the Engine Display. Something was definately up. "Number One Engine FADEC checklist, please," I called. The captain grabbed the emergency/abnormal book and thumbed through to the appropriate checklist.

This particular caution light has some notoriety at my airline. FADEC stands for Full Authority Digital Engine Control; it's a computer that regulates almost every aspect of engine operation, monitors its health, and can even shut it down for various malfunctions. If FADEC completely fails, so does your engine. There are warning lights for this, "#1 [or 2] ENG FADEC FAIL"; when it illuminates, you run the engine failure checklist on the Immediate Action Card. The yellow caution light we had, "#1 ENG FADEC," is much less serious; its checklist tells you to use caution when moving the power levers and do not use Beta range.

The notoriety comes from an incident several years back where one of our MegaWhacker captains got a FADEC caution light, failed to make the distinction between that and the warning light, and unneccessarily shut an engine down. The fallout from that incident is long and convoluted, so I won't go into it, but the #1 ENG FADEC checklist now unofficially bears his name. I doubt anyone will make that mistake again; hindsight is a wonderful thing.

In this case, I called for the appropriate checklist, it was mostly advisory in nature, and we landed without further incident. That's how caution lights generally go. They're just not a big deal if you follow the checklist. They do, however, mean that the rest of your day is probably going to be affected by maintenance. In this case it took the mechanics a few hours to find and repair the problem, resulting in the cancellation of several legs; I got a nap that felt very good since we had a 5am van time that morning.