Sunday, December 25, 2011


Merry Christmas to all! Today Dawn and I are flying to Atlanta and then onwards to Santiago, Chile, for the start of a two-week vacation in South America. We'll be stopping in Santiago, Púcon, and Puerto Varas before boarding the Navimag ferry for a four-day journey through the Patagonian fjords to Puerto Natales. From there we will spend a few days trekking in Torres del Paine National Park, cross the border to Argentina, tour the Perito Moreño glacier, and stay in El Calafate. Finally we'll fly up to Buenos Aires for one day before returning to the States on January 8, flight loads and Volcán Puyehue permitting.

I have a post queued up and ready to go on our return, and then I'll get a post about the trip up as soon as I can. In the meantime, everyone have a safe and happy holidays.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Silent Night

Today is December 22, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Here in Minneapolis it is short indeed, at 8 hours and 46 minutes. The sun rises at nearly 8AM, sets at 4:30PM, and never reaches higher than 21.6º above the horizon. This is the price we pay for gloriously long summer days with lingering sunsets and dusky twilights that cling to the western horizon 'till nearly midnight. This time of year, those languid summer evenings are what the 9-to-5ers think about as they drive to and from work in pitch black darkness. I personally feel that the constant gloom of a Minnesota winter is far more oppressive than the extreme cold. Today, though, I'll feel better knowing that the worst is behind us and it will get a little lighter every single day.

Ironically, given my attitude towards winter's long nights, I love night flying. Roughly 20% of my total flight time, 1500 hours out of nearly 8000, is night time. Of course I occasionally flew at night during training and flight instructing, but it wasn't until my time as a freight dog that I regularly flew after dark. For a while I flew cancelled checks from Las Vegas to Burbank every weeknight at midnight, and it was on that run that I learned to love the homey glow of a darkened cockpit, the march of the stars overhead, the glowing clusters of civilization slipping past through the inky void of the Mojave. Alas, that was also the run on which I awoke from a micro-sleep on short final to Burbank with no recollection of the previous thirty minutes.

Today, the flow of the seasons is reflected in the pages of my logbook. The night time column, rarely touched in summers, is darkened by entries nearly every day in wintertime. Some pages, it constitutes nearly half of my flight time. I don't mind at all. Night flying in airliners may lack some of the romance of being alone over the Mojave, but it also lacks the unseen mountains, the suddenly rough engines, the unexpected icing, and most of the bonenumbing fatigue. Truth told, the modern airliner is as easy to fly at night as at high noon - and in some respects, easier. I have radar, GPS, and TAWS to keep me out of trouble. I have an FO to talk with and to keep me awake. I have flight attendants to bring me coffee. There is less traffic, quiet reigns on the radio, and ATC is exceptionally accommodating.

Most of all I love the feeling of a smooth flight on a clear, dark eve. The magic of flight, once so self-evident in my youth but lost to familiarity years ago, returns once more. The smallness of my little pressurized world of aluminum and fiberglass becomes evident before the fathomless expanse of the universe laid bare above us. The amber cockpit, dimmed to the softest glow, becomes a cocoon, a time capsule, a magic carpet floating across the slumbering earth. The cares of my day and the pressures and frustrations of my job slip away. I become peaceful, content, and grateful in the silence. Night is a wonderful time to be aloft.

I think many, if not most, pilots who've been flying long feel the way I do. I can see it on the countenance of my First Officers. Our nocturnal conversations are unusually relaxed, genial, and thoughtful. Acquaintances become friends and friends become confidants in the dimness of their shared cockpit.

For all my fondness of night flying, I haven't flown after dark in a small plane since 2004 - until recently, that is. The Cessna 170 I fly is nicely equipped for night VFR, and not being able to fly at night greatly limits your flying during a Minnesota winter. Weekend before last, I took the 170 up for three nighttime trips around the pattern. At first it was downright eerie. There was none of the comfortable familiarity of the JungleBus. I felt naked - understandably so, in a single-engine piston at a deserted, poorly lit airport. After three full-stop landings, though, the old familiarity started coming back. Dawn climbed in and we took off for a flight around the Twin Cities, looking at Christmas lights and circling downtown Minneapolis. It was a beautiful, and fun, and relaxing way to spend an evening, sharing the magic of a night flight with my lovely wife.

I enjoyed it so much that I did it again this weekend, this time with my little brother Steve and his girlfriend Torrie. She'd never flown in a small plane so I had her sit up front, and she was enraptured from the start. As we flew over their house and around downtown and past Lake Calhoun, Torrie reached back to take Steve's hand and I could see it etched on their faces: the thing I love about night flying, the thing I first loved about flying itself. On the way back out to Buffalo, I had Torrie fly the plane. Later, as we put the old bird back in her hangar, Steve and Torrie talked excitedly about what it would take to get their pilots licenses and buy an airplane.

Maybe they really got bit hard, or maybe it's just talk fueled by the excitement of the moment. It doesn't matter. It felt really good to give them that. It's said that the best gift you can give is that which you value dearly. That's exactly what I gave them. It felt felt, I dare say, like Christmas.

Friday, December 02, 2011


If you've been in aviation very long, you've likely heard some variation of the following story:
A student pilot was practicing touch and goes in a Piper Cub at the local grass strip when he saw a Bonanza zoom overhead. "Wow," he thought, "I wish I could fly a fast, sexy airplane like that!"

The Bonanza pilot was plodding along at 150 knots when he got passed by a Baron. "Boy, that's the ticket," he said. "I need to get a twin!"

The Baron pilot was slogging through the bumps when he saw a Cheyenne pass overhead. "I wish I had a turboprop," he groused. "I could get up and out of this weather!"

The Cheyenne pilot massaged his temples; it'd been a long night on the medivac run. Just then he saw a Citation go by. "Oh, to fly a jet!" he sighed. "Props are for boats!"

The Citation pilot looked at his groundspeed readout impatiently. There was a hellacious headwind, and if he didn't get the boss to his meeting on time there would be hell to pay. He looked up at a B747 crossing overhead. "Wouldn't that be the life!" he mused. "Big, fast airplane. Exotic destinations. Hot young flight attendants!"

The 747 Captain looked down at the earth, trying to stay awake for the tenth hour of a twelve hour crossing from Tokyo. He picked at the lukewarm crew meal that'd been grudgingly served by the very senior, very old, and very disgruntled A-line. Just then he spied a little yellow speck moving across the tree tops far, far below. A Piper Cub! The Captain turned to his FO with a smile and said, "Oh man, what I wouldn't give to be out flying a Cub right now!"
It's an aviation story, but the "grass is greener" syndrome is in no way confined to the pilot population. It is a human phenomenon. We undervalue what we have and overvalue what we do not. Especially in this age of plenty, we've become accustomed to wanting increasingly superfluous things, and getting them immediately - consequences be damned. Modern economies are essentially built on an unending cycle of desire and consumption. You could argue that the present economic malaise is due to individuals, businesses, and governments all (re)discovering that their wants far outstrip their resources.

Aviation, like so much of the country, feels like it is at a standstill right now, waiting for something to happen. There are few retirements. Nobody is growing; many companies are shrinking. American Airlines just declared bankruptcy, and few believe that airline consolidation is complete. Everyone's sitting tight, biding their time, wishing for some good news, any good news. Waiting, and wanting.

I've been a Captain at NewCo for nearly four years now. I've had the flight time to go elsewhere for some time, if anyone worth going to was hiring. I still have flow rights to WidgetCo, our mainline partner, and I've been on the brink of going there for over a year. They just announced they are not planning to hire in 2012; it's largely speculated they will hold off until 3Q 2013. I've become rather restless. I often peruse the aviation message boards and job sites in search of something better. When Tianjin Airlines recently upped their base salary for JungleBus Captains in China to $188,000/year, it was hard not to give Parc Aviation a call. Even doing something different at NewCo would help. I'd love to be a check airman; unfortunately, my company has resisted hiring check airmen in my seniority block for fear of immediately losing us to WidgetCo.

All this career angst, this wanting something different, completely ignores how good I have it right now. I'm living in base, with a 25 minute drive to work. I'm bidding at 14% seniority in my category and getting my pick of trips. I've averaging 17 days off work per month and making a perfectly livable wage. Nobody should be feeling sorry for me, least of all myself. Restlessness is truly an affliction of the comfortable. My career woes feel pretty pathetic when I talk to friends still at Horizon, or 20-year Comair Captains facing the extinction of their airline. They also feel petty next to the one, unobtainable thing that Dawn and I have really wanted for the last five years.

Longtime readers may recall me writing about Dawn's miscarriage in early 2007. That pregnancy was a surprise, but one we accepted and were ultimately happy about until we lost the baby. The realization that we were financially ill-prepared for parenthood led directly to me leaving Horizon and taking the job at NewCo. Since then we've been continuously trying for a baby. We've had trouble getting pregnant but did succeed twice, only to suffer two more miscarriages - most recently this last weekend. It was very early, less than a month in, but it hurt like hell. It felt like a door slamming shut. The first two we could say, "Well, this sort of thing happens," but now it seems increasingly certain Dawn will not be able to carry to term. It's what she wants more than anything.

My initial reaction was anger. I was angrier than I've been in a long time - at chance, the universe, God. Simply being unable to conceive would be hard enough but there'd always be that glimmer of hope. This seemed downright cruel, like Lucy and the football. The initial excitement and hope made it so much worse when it ended abruptly in a by-now-familiar torrent of physical and emotional pain. The fact that it was my wife who was going through hell and there was absolutely nothing I could say or do to make it better absolutely enraged me. No convenient target presented itself, however.

In the midst of this I had three days of simulator training scheduled - my twelve month event, the checkride I must pass to keep my job. I considered cancelling. Nobody would have blamed me given the circumstances, and the company would've readily rescheduled. Ultimately I decided to just get it over with, and flew what was possibly the best checkride of my life. It was flawless. I've always done my best flying under stress. It was also pretty therapeutic, a chance to clear my head for a few hours and do something I enjoy, and then think things over on the drive home.

Here's the conclusion I've come to after thinking it over a while: this is one hard, painful part of what has otherwise been a very good life. I've built a good career doing something I love during the worst ten years in that industry's history. I'm married to my best friend, a woman who understands me better than anyone alive and shares many of my interests. We have a nice house, good friends, and loving family. We have our health. We've been able to explore many beautiful corners of the world. We're doing well financially. There are so many people who are far worse off, especially these last few years. I have absolutely no right to be angry at chance, the universe, God, or myself because our many blessings happen to not include children, or because we have to work through the hardship of miscarriage.

Dawn and I have talked this over and concluded that while we'd love kids and will try at least once more, we can't make it the biggest thing in our lives simply because it's what we don't have. We'll live our lives as though we won't be able to have children, and if it turns out we can, fine. On that note, Dawn is starting work on her Masters degree next month. The idea is have her done around the time that WidgetCo starts hiring so her pay increase will offset my pay cut and prevent us from dipping into our savings. As a bit of a last hurrah before she gets swamped with studies, we're flying to South America later this month for 2.5 weeks in Chile & Argentina, including doing some trekking in Patagonia. It's not exactly what I wanted for Christmas, but I'm thankful for the chance to do it nonetheless.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Bruges

I'll admit it: I went to Belgium to see Bruges, and I went to Bruges because of the movie. I saw "In Bruges" when it came out in 2008 and, like everyone else, immediately put Bruges on my "to do" list. I never actually got there for a few years despite being in the neighborhood multiple times because...well, you have to go through Belgium to get there. I was led to believe the best part of Belgium is the beer, and I do enjoy that - from afar. Everything else was evidently copped from the Dutch or French, but more bland than either...or so I heard among the European backpacker set. Well, now I have been to Bruges and Belgium, and I am ready to pronounce judgement: yes, Bruges really is that fantastic, and its charms were not exaggerated by the movie. Yes, Belgium is ugly and bland...if by Belgium, you mean Brussels.

Dawn was gone to New York City for the weekend with four of her cousins, leaving me to my own devices for a three day weekend. After getting off work on Friday, I hopped on an Airbus 330 to Amsterdam - in first class, of course, it's the only way to fly! I woke up in Europe feeling reasonably fresh and boarded an Intercity train southward. I passed Den Haag and Rotterdam, changed trains in Antwerp, and again in the medieval Flemish city of Ghent. I was "In Bruges" by 2pm.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and all of the next morning walking around Bruges. I took a boat ride through the canals and climbed the belfry. I ate frites while people-watching in Grote Markt and a canal-side wafel at the Sunday morning flea market. Saturday night, I sampled some local brews in a warm, dim tavern with 400 Belgian beers on offer, met a couple of guys from near Edinburgh, and ended the night singing karaoke with the Scots in a Celtic bar with some Danish girls while some loudmouth South Carolinian drunkenly proclaimed that he was more Scottish than the lads wearing kilts (yes, really; "to get girls to talk to us"; seemed to work!). Ah, globalism.

There were quite a few other tourists, especially for late October, but they mostly mass around Grote Markt and the rest of the town largely retains its quiet charm. All the "te koop" signs in empty windows provided a clue why. Only 20,000 people actually live in the town center, a fraction of the medieval population. I inquired about one average-looking canal house for sale, and was told the asking price was €3,000,000. It had been vacant for three years.

Sunday afternoon, I took the one-hour train ride to Brussels. I wasn't horribly impressed. It's like someone took Amsterdam, Paris, and Frankfurt, put them together and shook hard, and threw in a little Stalinist architecture for good measure. The end result is that you have 16th century Flemish row houses next to elegant 19th century Parisian buildings next to ugly concrete apartment blocks next to gleaming modern skyscrapers next to a massive parking garage. The very center around the town square has a few well-preserved medieval blocks, but they are clogged with tourist restaurants and kitschy gift shops. There are some pretty spots, to be sure. There are a few tranquil squares worth lingering in. I took a tram east of the city, past the European Parliament, and found gorgeous landscaped parks with quiet lakes and swans and stately villas surrounded by rolling forestland. On my return I grabbed a cheap, scrumptious doner kebap from a ubiquitous falafal stand and parked myself in a great little bar that had good, cheap Belgian beers - and the Vikings-Packers game on TV, of all things!

Mostly, though, Brussels made me wonder if it is the source of Belgium's ho-hum reputation, and perhaps the rest of the country is quite worthy of exploration. Both Antwerp and Ghent looked inviting when I passed through. I'd quite like to visit the Ardennes. I stayed up playing cards with a group of students on my return to the hostel Sunday night, and they told me Liège is a fun town. That would have to wait for other weekends, though. Monday morning, I headed back across the Atlantic. It was a great little trip, but work awaited.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Beyond the Fishbowl

The vast majority of the trips I fly involve multiple landings at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP). It's where I'm based so at the bare minimum the trip will begin and end there, and in between we usually connect through MSP at least once a day. This recent trip is fairly representative:


Minneapolis is a great airport to fly out of. It's not ridiculously busy, has a pretty efficient layout, has very good ATC, and delays are few except in the worst winter weather. All the same, constantly landing at the same airport can get a little old. Moreover, being the home of my company's headquarters and its largest crew base, MSP is "the fishbowl." You're always running into chief pilots and check airmen and company bigwigs, most of whom are very nice people eager to shake my hand and call me by my first name and say nice things about me. I hate that. It's been a longstanding goal of mine for my employer to forget I exist. Jeppesen updates necessitate an occasional stealthy foray into the crew room, but otherwise my "productivity breaks" are spent in the opposite corner of the airport.

Last year we were doing a bunch of flying out of New York's LaGuardia Airport, Washington's National Airport, and Atlanta. Some of our trips avoided Minneapolis altogether, and you were virtually based in one of those three airports during the trip. The change of scenery was nice, but I hate east coast flying. It's just too much work - and not fun, interesting work like, say, a VOR-A approach to minimums in the mountains. It's constant frequency changes, inflexible routing, impatient controllers, and ever-present delays. You're not really out of the fishbowl either, it's just filled with different and much bigger fish. Given the choice, I'd fly nothing but Minneapolis-Missoula, thankyouverymuch!

Last week, though, I flew the trip of my dreams. We didn't pass through Minneapolis once and never ventured east of the Mississippi River. I didn't fly more than two legs a day. The weather was beautiful except for five minutes of marine layer IMC each day. We got fed crew meals. It was productive, with 25 hours of pay for four short days of work. The layovers were long and the happy hour specials lucrative. I don't know why I didn't bid this trip all month long. It looked like this:

Day 1: MSP-MCI
Day 4: MCI-LAX-MCI (Deadhead MSP)

This was my first time back to LAX since flying for Horizon. It's even more ridiculously easy coming from the east; they sequence you 200 miles out and clear you for the approach while you're at 18,000 feet over Big Bear Lake. The majority of my 2400 non-airline hours were spent flying out of Southern California, while my FO had never been there, so on the long flights out west I regaled him with tales of near-misses and lost students and 3-mile VFR days and lunch at Flo's and the time I just about took out the powerlines at the end of Big Bear's runway (the west end, fortunately). Fortunately for my FO, we had clear weather and spectacular scenery to occasionally shut me up. Here are some good samples:

I would've bid this trip for all of November except I, um, forgot to bid! My "standing bid," which exists for such a birdbrained eventuality, is very basic, requesting only maximum days off. Accordingly, I got a very good 19 days off, despite having three very inefficient training days at the end of the month. More surprisingly, I got Thanksgiving and a random Thursday I needed off despite my standing bid neglecting to mention either requirement. Perhaps I should forget to bid more often!