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!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Alaska from Above

For those who enjoyed my account of this summer's motorcycle trip to Alaska, here's a great blog that shows nearly the same route from another perspective. Jesse flew to Alaska and back in his 1966 Mooney M20E, and took a lot of fantastic photos along the way. His overflight of the Wrangell-St. Elias Range, in particular, sent me off to to see just how long it'd take to get there in the C-170!

Check it out: Red Feather Pilot.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Last week I was running around town on a day off, checking items off my "honey-do" list. My route took me right past Flying Cloud Airport, where my club's 1949 Cessna 170 is tied down. It was a nice day with a high overcast and a light breeze from the north. I was sorely tempted to drop in and go flying, but I had stuff to get done. I drove past.

On my way back, I couldn't resist. I was making good work of the list, and figured I had enough time for a half-hour hop. The last few times I'd flown the C-170, I made pretty ugly landings. There weren't any big directional excursions, but I kept misjudging my height in the flare - bane of airline pilots flying little planes! The result was typically sinking in the last few feet for a plop with a bounce or two afterward, or worse yet driving the mains in hard to set up a crow hop. The ugliest of these took place with a NewCo First Officer in the right seat when we were playing hooky from work on a four-hour "productivity break." That was embarrassing. I figured the problem was that I wasn't flying the 170 often enough given my relatively low time in the airplane, and most of my flights were focused on sightseeing or going somewhere instead of practicing landings.

As I untied and preflighted the plane, I resolved to practice wheel landings. These require a pretty precise idea of how far your wheels are off the ground, as you need almost zero sink at touchdown to prevent a "crow hop." The 170's spring steel landing gear is fairly unforgiving of bad wheel landings, especially on pavement. The usual technique is to come in a bit low, power-on, with no flaps. Over the threshold, you begin a very slow easing off of the power, cutting it completely at the moment of touchdown. Meanwhile you don't really need to flare, as ground effect will slow your sink rate. You ease the wheel back just a smidge when you're about to touch down to bring the sink rate to virtually nil, then at the moment of touchdown you bring it forward an inch or so to eliminate any tendency to crow-hop.

This being my first 170 flight sans passengers, it leapt off the ground and climbed like a scalded cat. I didn't know the old girl was capable of such performance! I was at pattern altitude before I turned downwind and was cleared for the option. My first landing was almost an exact repeat of my performance with the NewCo FO. I flared for what seemed like forever, and was convinced that my tires were only an inch or two off the pavement. I was spring-loaded to push the yoke forward on touchdown, and must have got tired of waiting because I jumped the gun. It turned out my wheels were feet, not inches, off the ground, and my premature push drove them right into the pavement. The impact pushed the tail down, increasing the wing's angle of attack, which sent me airborne, where my nose-down elevator input drove the mains back into the ground again. This is what I mean by crow-hopping. It is the taildragger equivalent of a Pilot-Induced Oscillation, except it's physics-induced. There's nothing the pilot can do to stop it but go around or pull up and convert the landing to a full-stall three-pointer if the runway is long enough and directional control isn't a problem. I went around.

On the second pattern, I reminded myself that the ground was a lot lower than I thought it was, and to not put in the forward yoke until I felt myself touch down. This time it worked out perfectly. I timed the flare perfectly, felt the upwind wheel squeak across the blacktop, nudged the yoke forward to keep it planted, then the downwind wheel came down. I held the tailwheel up as I slowed, then gently lowered it and used aft elevator to keep positive traction as the rudder lost effectiveness. Perfection.

By the time I had a half-hour on the Hobbs meter, I'd made five landings. Only the first was awful, two were beautiful, and the other two involved a bit of skipping but nothing horrible. I felt a whole lot better about having the right picture in the flare. As I tied down the old bird, it occurred to me that my thirty minutes of simple pattern work were more challenging - and more fun - than any flying I had done at work in months. It's a shame so few airline pilots fly on their days off. Too many associate the very act of controlling an aircraft with workaday drudgery.

This Friday, I landed the JungleBus on Minneapolis' Runway 12L in a sixty degree crosswind that was gusting to 36 knots. There was moderate turbulence most of the way down final, and the airspeed was bouncing around plus or minus ten knots of my approach speed. The autothrottles kept trying to alternate between unspooling the engines and firewalling them, so I overrode them to keep the thrust in a reasonable range. As I flared, I kicked in nearly full left rudder to swing the nose around to runway heading, while putting in enough aileron to drop the right wing and keep the plane from drifting. I touched down smoothly on the right wheel, lowered the nose just a touch, then increased aileron deflection as the left wing came down, the left main touched, and I derotated. The wind gusted mightily as I deployed the thrust reversers and braked, but quick work on the rudders kept us right on centerline. I got quite a few handshakes, thumbs up, and "well done"s from the passengers as they deplaned. It was a pretty beautiful landing, if I say so myself.

Truth be told, virtually every airline pilot out there can land well in those conditions and far worse, and does so on a semi-regular basis. That said, I've noticed a definite improvement in my JungleBus landings since I started flying taildraggers. I notice drift a lot earlier and am a lot less tolerant of it. Most modern airliners, by design and by sheer mass, will tolerate a certain amount of hamfistedness. Most old light taildraggers will not. I'm not saying I'm ready to take on a Pitts just yet, but it sure is nice to occasionally fly something that taxes - and builds - my stick-and-rudder skills a bit more than the JungleBus.