Thursday, December 20, 2012

Two Towns

"That dusty old chair there, the one above the icebox...I don't know if this is bullshit or not, but supposedly Abraham Lincoln sat in that chair during a speech at Cooper Union across the street."

I'd never thought to ask about the significance of the chair. There's too much other interesting stuff in here to catch the eye. Abe Lincoln did indeed give a lengthy address at Cooper Union while campaigning for President in 1860. I fleetingly wondered how the chair made its way from the Great Hall to a then-brand-new tavern a block away, or for that matter why a famously capable orator like Honest Abe would sit down while delivering an important speech. Before I could voice my skepticism, our rather tipsy and gregarious barmate shouted over the noise of the bar:

"If you look down, on the rail, you'll see a pair of handcuffs left by Harry Houdini himself."

All of our eyes fell to the floor. Oops, I was standing on them. Indeed, there was a pair of handcuffs, cuffed to the rail. If Harry Houdini hadn't left them, someone else had done so a very long time ago, given their rusty condition. "Is that true, Pete?" The grey-clad bartender's name isn't actually Pete but I'm horrible at remembering names, hadn't been to McSorley's in a while, and Pete is a great bartender's name. Pete grinned and nodded. "Supposedly. Was before my time." Houdini's been dead since 1926, and Pete's only been working at McSorley's for 30-some years.

McSorley's Old Ale House is New York City's oldest bar, having been established in 1854. I rather literally stumbled upon the place on a long New Year's Eve layover five years ago, and have coming back ever since. I have a number of other favorite haunts in the Village and soho, but my visits usually start or end by taking the crew to McSorleys. It's a dark, dusty, grimy sort of place, with sawdust on the floor and cobwebs on broken overhead fans. The walls are covered with historic photos, memorabilia, and newspaper clippings; nothing's been removed since 1910, which is also probably the last time the place was given a good cleaning. McSorley's unapologetically serves exactly two things: light ale and dark ale. One of my flight attendants once asked for a margarita at McSorley's, with hilarious results.

The tables are communal, and as McSorley's is almost always crowded, I've drank with some really interesting people over the years. While the bar certainly attracts out-of-town tourists, a surprisingly number of patrons are local regulars who know a ton about its history, or are at least good at making stuff up. I've heard that John F. Kennedy was a regular there (he was there once) and that the Supreme Court made them start admitting women it 1970 (it was a district court) and that e.e. cummings wrote an ode in praise of McSorley's (it was a short poem, thank God). The historical particulars don't really matter, it's the congenial atmosphere that keeps me coming back, and bringing crews with me.

I was staring into the bottom of my sixth glass - never fear, McSorley's glasses are tiny and six glasses is no more than a pint and a half. "Where you folks headed next?" asked Pete.

"Umm... I was thinking around the corner to Continental, or maybe over to Off the Wagon on MacDougal." I looked over at my crew. Actually, they didn't seem like the college-bar type.

"Continental? Don't take em to that dump! Take em to a classy joint, like Pete's Tavern in 18th, or Old Town just west of there."

Which is how we found ourselves near Gramercy Park eyeing up a red brick facade that proclaimed Pete's Tavern to be the oldest bar in New York...established in 1864. Inside, Pete's is the diametrical opposite of McSorley's: clean, polished, with a gorgeous long bar and cozy private booths and neat rows of framed photos of various contemporary celebrities posing with bartenders. It was mostly empty, and quiet. We perched ourselves on stools and ordered pints of Pete's 1864 Ale. "So, what's the story with the oldest bar claim?" I asked our portly bartender, who looked very much like a James. "Wasn't McSorley's here ten years earlier?"

James' eyes narrowed. "McSorley's is completely full of shit," he scoffed. "We had a 140 year celebration here a few years ago, and the Times did some research, and they found that the site of McSorley's was still an open field in 1860. There's no record of the place existing until 1870. They just made it up," James concluded bitterly, as though it was a personal affront to him. Clearly, I'd touched a nerve and stepped into the middle of an ongoing old-bar feud. We excused ourselves after one beer; the girls wanted to see the Christmas decorations at Rockefeller Center and do some window-shopping on Fifth Avenue.

Twenty-four hours later, I was huffing and wheezing in the freezing mountain air. Fat snowflakes sifted down through boughs of ponderosa pine, blanketing the ground on both sides of the path and making the scree underfoot alarmingly slippery. "Just keep going, one foot in front of the other," I commanded myself as I trudged up the incline. Rob was well ahead, charging pretty much straight up the mountain. I didn't remember the trail being this long the last time I did it, or this steep. Clearly, I'm out of shape, in no small part thanks to East Coast layovers with no hiking and too much tasty beer.

I slipped with a yelp, caught myself on a branch, and gingerly stepped back onto the path. I cursed myself for not bringing hiking boots on account of the extra weight and bulk in my overnight bag. Rob had warned me several days before the trip that we would be doing a six mile hike up Mount Sentinel. At least I had the foresight to bring a headlamp; with a 1:30pm landing time and a December early sunset, I rather doubted we'd get off the mountain before we lost the light. Doing this in a snowstorm probably wasn't the smartest decision, but neither Rob nor I were willing to be the first one to wuss out. I huffed around a switchback and saw Rob at a clearing, looking out over Hellgate Canyon. I gratefully stopped to catch my breath and grabbed a swig of water before resuming the upwards slog.

It was 4pm by the time we reached the peak. Last time I was here it was a bright summer day with refreshing pine breezes and a commanding view of the valley and surrounding mountains. Today, Missoula's glowing lights looked like a far-off, cozy dream through the falling snow. It was already getting dark, and we wasted no time in starting down the perilously steep trail - the one that dispenses entirely with switchbacks and proceeds straight down the mountain towards the M. The inadequacies of my tennis shoes became even more obvious as I slipped and slid my way down the mountain. We met a hiker on his way upward (!) in the snow and fading light. He eyed my choice of footwear dubiously and advised me "You be careful, now."

I somehow made it down to the M intact, and from there the heavily traveled path with its 11 switchbacks made for an easy descent to the University of Montana campus as the last light faded. There were, incredibly, a steady stream of college kids heading up the mountain, toting backpacks heavily laden with winter camping gear. They were all, rather predictably, in much better shape than I. Rob and I were now inside our "twelve hour limit" so we dispensed with the celebratory beer and headed back to the layover hotel. I was tired, but happy that we got out and made the most of our Missoula layover, same as we did in New York the prior day. I know of very few jobs where you can be sampling New York City's oldest bars one afternoon, and hiking in the mountains in Montana the next. That's pretty neat. Ongoing instability in the regional world makes it easy to start second-guessing one's career choices, but there are a lot of things I do like about my job; it's nice to have a good trip with a good crew to remind me of them.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

After the Storm

"Cleveland Center, NewCo 5831, checking on flight level three five zero."

"NewCo 5831, Cleveland Center, good morning...uh, are you really going to LaGuardia?"

"Yeah Cleveland, they tell us we are. We have our swimmies and goggles on."
I wasn't quite sure I believed it myself. Three days prior, the airport was under water, a lot of water, and dirty seawater at that. Hurricane Sandy proved to have just a bit more punch than I sampled flying through the very outer rings in my friend's Warrior, with storm surge of up to twelve feet in New York Harbor. LaGuardia didn't get that much, but it didn't need to; most of the airport sits mere feet above Flushing Bay. Floodwaters covered the runways, the taxiways, the ramps, and came all the way up to the various terminals. By Tuesday, photos of the flooded airport were circulating around the internet. I had a four day trip with turns through LaGuardia every day starting on Wednesday. I strongly doubted I'd be flying much of it.

Indeed, crew scheduling rang me up on Tuesday evening to inform me that Wednesday's schedule had been modified. Instead of flying MSP-CLT-LGA-MSN, I would fly the revenue flight to Charlotte and then reposition directly to Madison. That struck me as a little insane since we were scheduled to fly MSN-LGA on Thursday morning, and surely that wasn't happening! The crew scheduler said that WidgetCo had declined to cancel the flight just yet. Ok, then. Wednesday morning we flew to Charlotte, and then treated our brand new flight attendant to her first jumpseat experience on our Part 91 repo up to Madison. That night I kept expecting to hear from crew scheduling, but they never called.

So we dutifully showed up Thursday morning in Madison. Our plane was there. We had a gate agent, and his gate display said we were flying to New York. He had our release and paperwork pulled up. Indeed, the NOTAMs showed the airport open for business at 8am - but there were five pages of lights and signs and navaids out of service, it took me twenty minutes to work through the list! Basically, they were down to one runway (13/31), no ILSes, no approach lights, no VASIs or PAPIs or any other sort of crutch for us button-pushing airline-pilot types. So we loaded up our surprisingly light load and took off for New York, me still wondering if we'd really land there.

Well, we did. It was an easy arrival and a nicely challenging Expressway visual starting directly over the field, almost like an overhead entry to the downwind at a GA airport. Eyeballing our distance versus altitude the whole way through the circle, rolling out on a one-mile final at 300 feet, no sweat for a Cub pilot! Who needs a VASI? My first impression on arrival was how busy the airport was already, considering it had just opened for arrivals barely two hours prior. My second impression was how surprisingly clean it was. I was expecting a bit more of a post-apocalyptic vibe.

In fact, most of the busyness was WidgetCo traffic. Both of their terminals were already chock-a-block, before USAir had landed even a single airplane. Our rampers charged out enthusiastically as we approached the gate. The gate agent gave our flight attendant a big hug when she opened the door; we were her first flight. Being a few minutes early, I went inside the terminal and found things humming right along. The list of cancelled flights on the information screens was surprisingly short. Gate agents told me about the absolutely massive cleanup effort on Tuesday and Wednesday. They said Widget was housing and feeding pretty much all their employees in a nearby hotel, since the lack of public transit made it nearly impossible to commute between their homes and the airport. I asked about how the ground equipment survived the saltwater. Turns out somebody smart had convoyed all the ground equipment over to a nearby parking garage before the storm. Good on em.

Our exit wasn't quite as seamless as our entrance; we had to wait holding short of Runway 31 for a good 25 minutes before there was an opening in the arrivals big enough to let us take off. That's okay, we got to watch a bunch of Expressway Visuals and grade the efforts. I also noticed a few small signs of the flood around the taxiway - a sign bent backwards, a patch of seaweed on the tarmac. Overall, though, LaGuardia got back on its feet very quickly, a hearty credit to an oft-maligned airport. And WidgetCo did a magnificent job of getting their operation humming at nearly full strength only days after being inundated by a hurricane. I'm occasionally critical of airline mismanagement on this blog, but not this time. The situation was clearly very well managed. It was also resolved though a lot of hard work under difficult conditions by the fine folks Widget has working for them in New York. Bravo.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Before the Storm

"Cherokee 43408, winds 070 at 17 gusting 29, runway 6 cleared for takeoff."

"Runway 6 cleared for takeoff, Cherokee 408."

The little red, white, and blue Piper was already rocking in the gusty winds as I shoved the throttle forward; the airspeed needle jumped to life only seconds after we started rolling down the runway. Angry grey clouds skimmed overhead; a diagonal rain shaft scooted by a few miles east.  I glanced to our left; the only airplanes left at the Nantucket Airport were three good-sized jets, all the small planes having cleared out the previous day. Maybe this wasn't the best thought-out plan. I hesitated to rotate, letting the speed build a bit above normal, and then gingerly pulled back on the yoke. The lively little Piper sprang up into the maelstrom, shrugging off the gusts. Hurricane Sandy was predicted to be one of the most destructive storms to ever hit the Northeast, and now I was playing Hurricane Hunter in a 2000-pound, single-engine airplane.

Dawn and I had made plans to visit Nantucket weeks before anyone ever heard of Sandy. My ex-student Johnny, whose beautiful 1983 Piper Warrior I helped ferry across the country earlier this year, urged us to use the airplane whenever we liked. A windstorm had stripped Minnesota's trees bare early this year, so we thought a late-October flight along the New England shoreline would be a perfect second chance at leaf peeping. Flight loads in and out of BDL were wide open, car rental was cheap, and I got a good off-season deal on a beautiful B&B in the middle of Nantucket Town. It was all set, and then came the pesky monster that the press irritatingly dubbed "Frankenstorm." I reloaded the NHC website five times a day and eventually made the first "Go/No-Go Decision" only an hour before our flight to BDL on Friday night. Saturday was forecast to be gorgeous, the winds weren't supposed to really kick up until Sunday afternoon, and the hurricane wasn't forecast to make landfall well down the coast until Monday night. We'd be long gone by then.

Saturday indeed dawned as a beautiful, crisp fall day, and the pattern was already busy when we drove up to tiny Chester Airport. The plan was to fly to Nantucket, land, and fly back early if the forecast had changed appreciably for Sunday. The flight up the Connecticut coastline at 1500' was stunning, though most of the trees were a bit past peak. We lingered to circle around Newport, RI a few times, ogling the beautiful tall-ship megayachts swinging on their moorings. A gaggle of Lasers were racing further out in the bay, and a few J-24s were running downwind under colorful spinnakers past Newport Bridge. It certainly didn't look like a town bracing for a superstorm.

New Bedford and Buzzard's Bay were similarly resplendent and I decided to detour across the base of Cape Cod and over Cape Cod Bay to Provincetown. From there we flew east and south down the length of the Cape, eventually splitting off to follow the spit of Monomoy Island and then climbing to a more suitable altitude for the short water crossing to Nantucket. The airport was lively when we landed, but the parking attendant looked a little doubtful when we told him we'd be tying down for the night. The forecast was still holding fast, though: moderate wind and high clouds in the morning, but nothing too crazy for VFR flight until late afternoon. I decided to stay and leave early in the morning.

We had a fantastic time in our short stay on Nantucket; it's a perfectly charming little island and town, with quaint cobblestone streets and lots of architecture dating back to its days as a whaling village. It was a perfect sunny day for exploring, but there was a touch of anxiety in the air, especially on the waterfront as nervous mariners scrambled to get their boats out of the water or, failing that, tie them up securely for the blast that was forecast to come straight into the harbor. It seemed half the town was at a pier-side bar called Captain Tobey's for what turned out to be a going-out-of-business party. The talk there centered on the storm, which combined with the last-party aspect gave the whole shindig a bit of an end-of-the-world vibe complete with rounds of free shots, increasingly frenetic dancing, and nearly culminating in drunken fisticuffs. We excused ourselves before it got too out of hand and walked to dinner through darkened streets swirling with newly fallen leaves driven by a suddenly brisk, chilly breeze.

The overnight change in weather was grimly apparent at first light. Most of the trees were suddenly bare and stark against the leaden sky, and hearty gusts spilled down the narrow lanes. At the airport, though, the VFR weather briefing showed ceilings along our route at 2500-3000 feet, good visibilities throughout, few radar returns, and wind at our destination still almost calm and not forecast to exceed 15 kts crosswind until that evening. We loaded up, preflighted, and taxied out to Runway 6.

Banking to the west over the town and towards Martha's Vineyard, the air was surprisingly smooth. We leveled off at 2500', with a good 1000' to go before the lowest cloud deck. I could see the Cape shoreline to our north. Nearing Martha's Vineyard, though, a scattered cloud layer appeared 500' below us. Halfway across the island, it was starting to close up, so I dropped down underneath and proceeded northwestbound 1000' off the water with scattered rain shafts ahead. I didn't like that at all; an engine failure would give us precious little time to broadcast our predicament to the world before ditching in a very choppy, very cold sea that happened to boast a large shark population. I turned due north to the mainland shore, where the clouds were considerably higher. I figured that here, if the weather got too bad, there are plenty of airports to land at and file IFR the rest of the way. In fact from that point on it was an easy flight back to Chester, where we landed in a light 8-knot crosswind.

Johnny and his son met us at Chester, and after putting his faithful little plane to bed we all went to breakfast at a local diner. There too, talk of the impending storm predominated conversation. In the coming days, Johnny's home would be spared from wind and water damage but he and his family would be forced to evacuate and later cope without power for several days. Other friends of mine who live on the Jersey shore have destruction all around them and are without electricity "indefinitely." But we didn't know any of that Sunday morning. After breakfast, we wished Johnny's family well and left them to their last-minute preparations while we scooted up to Hartford to barely make it onto a NewCo flight that had suddenly filled up with last-minute passengers trying to escape the storm. I was scheduled to return to the east coast a few days later with a LaGuardia-based trip, but how much of it I'd actually fly, I could only guess. (to be continued...)

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Have Wings, Will Sail

Six or seven years ago, I wrote a post about my interest in sailing and the many similarities it shares with flying. Since then, I've been able to sail occasionally, but the reality is that it's but one of several rather expensive hobbies I have - skiing, international travel, motorcycling, and flying small airplanes also compete for my time and money. So I've sailed my in-laws' 25' MacGregor now and then, borrowed friends' dinghies a few times, and more recently took quite a few of my crews out around Newport Harbor on SNA overnights in a rented 17' Hunter. My skipper's resume remains pretty brief.

Late this summer, I came across a craigslist ad for an old Santana 21 at a very good price. I sent it to my brother Steve as we've talked about getting a sailboat together for years, and his response was immediate: let's do it. The boat was in fairly good condition for its age, with several upgrades and a new outboard engine, and we were proud boat owners a few days later. Steve never sailed before but proved to be a quick study. We had the boat out several times over the remainder of the summer, camped on it over Labor Day weekend, took friends & family sailing, and are already making plans for next season. Since we keep it on the trailer ($3500 for a dock space for five months? No thanks!), we have to raise the mast and do other setup before each launch, a process we have down to about 30 minutes now.

One thing I've been wanting to do for years, and never got around to, is sailing in the Interline Regatta in the British Virgin Islands. It's a legendary annual party and sailing extravaganza for airline people (and friends & family) from around the world. I actually ended up going this year, through a quite accidental last-minute change in plans.

My friend Brad and I had been planning a dirt bike ride down Baja California for mid-October, but it had to be postponed until February after Brad lost part of a thumb in a motorcycle accident (in his garage, heh). I still had over two weeks off work, though. Right around that time, I got a call from my friend Jill, my sim partner in initial training at Horizon in 2004. Jill and her husband Timo used to own a 22' Catalina, just bought a 25' Catalina, and have done quite a bit of chartering with friends in the Caribbean. On a lark, I asked Jill if she and Timo were doing the Interline Regatta in the British Virgin Islands this year. She said yes, and their crew had a few spots left if I wanted to go. Thus did Monday October 8th find me jumpseating (and reliving my freight dog days a bit!) on a Cape Air Cessna 402 from San Juan PR to Tortola, BVI.

There were a total of 17 people in our crew - four Horizon pilots, one ex-Horizon (me), wives, in-laws, and friends. We chartered two boats - a gorgeous Beneteau 505 (rebranded as a Moorings 50.5 for chartering) monohull that we raced in the Regatta, and a massively spacious Moorings 4600 (nee Leopard 46) catamaran that served as our support/spectator/party boat. It was this crew's first year actually racing in the Regatta. Indeed, only 19 boats raced out of an estimated 60 boats participating in the regatta. And that's ok - the regatta would have been massive fun even without the racing. Sailing around the BVI, snorkeling beautiful coves, exploring neat spots like The Baths, meeting great airline folks, and just chilling on the boats with our fantastic crew was all really enjoyable. And then there are the massive themed costume parties held at a different spot every night - the sole reason many come to the regatta.

But I was really glad we raced. Prior to this, only a few of us had racing experience - one who crews on long-distance races like the TransPac & Newport-Cabo, and a husband-wife team who campaigns their E-scow across the Midwest. They and our skipper were regular fixtures on the race boat, and the rest of us rotated into the other four crew positions. All 17 of us crewed at least one race, including a few with zero sailing experience at all; our veteran racers did an excellent job of getting us all up to speed. I crewed on three practice days and two of the four racing days and had a fantastic time. It's a surprisingly intense sport for taking place on vessels that seldom exceed 9 knots. We started the week a little rough but continuously improved, ultimately netting several third place finishes to end the regatta in the middle of the pack. By the last day everyone was talking about racing in two classes next year. I'm certainly hooked...I met several Wayzata Yacht Club members this fall on Lake Minnetonka who invited me to race with them next summer, and now I think I'll be taking them up on it.

Sailing on a larger boat for the first time was interesting. It's faster and points (near the wind) much better than my boat, and with its heavy deep-draft keel it stood up to wind gusts much better and waves affected it less. The forces involved in managing such a huge sail plan are much greater, however, with more chance for injury. In small sailboats I'm admittedly careless in use of the jibsheet winches; the heavy-duty powered winches in the Beneteau scared me a bit, as they'll take your finger off if you're not careful. The things I love about sailing - the peacefulness of gliding along on the wind, the beauty of a boat heeled over under full sail, the feeling of power in a gust, the camaraderie of working together as a crew - remain the same.

One of the long-term goals I've had since I was a teenager is to do some long-distance cruising, perhaps even a circumnavigation, by sail. This may have to wait for retirement, or perhaps my first furlough. But before I even think of asking Dawn to sail away with me for one or two or three years, I need a lot more experience. Buying the Santana & sailing in the Interline Regatta were one little step towards that, but it's a start. Future steps will include racing, chartering, and perhaps crewing on a few passages. I'm eager to learn.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Curse of the Last Day

I reached up to the overhead panel and flipped on the taxi light, with pitifully little effect; the beam was swallowed whole by the night. The tarmac was dark and wet, with angry little puddles whipped into foam by raindrops and incessant wind. Low scud clouds scooted overhead, smothering any sign of the impending daybreak and reflecting very little light from the slumbering airport. Taxiway and runway lights cast soggy halos that smudged together in an impressionistic blur, and even yellow signage was indistinct, shrouded in mist. "Geeze, always darkest before the dawn, eh?" I remarked.

"Charlie Four is that way," countered the more practically-minded Rob, pointing to a half-visible sign on my left. I nudged the thrust levers forward an inch, and the 75,000 pound airplane crept forward into the inky void of a deserted Pittsburgh International Airport. It was 6:15am, eastern time.

Ding, dong.

I had groped my way out to Taxiway Bravo when the high-low chime of the cabin interphone sounded. Rob and I exchanged glances as he pressed the answer button on his audio panel. I could only hear his side of the conversation: "Hi, this is Rob...oh, way to turn them off?...oh, I see...okay, I'll tell him." Rob hung up and turned to me in the darkened cockpit. "That was Bill" - our lead flight attendant - "and he says the cabin lights are completely screwed up. They turn off when he turns them on, and vice versa, except that sometimes only half of them do it, and they won't dim." I grimaced - such a typical JungleBus malfunction. In older airplanes, lights just burn out. In this one, they become possessed.

We told ground control we needed to pull off to the side to sort some things out, and he diverted us onto the even darker Charlie deice ramp. I set the parking brake, powered up my cell phone, and dialed Maintenance Control. As I suspected, the only reset procedure for the cabin lights was to power down the airplane and power it back up. This had to be accomplished at the gate. Rob called operations while I gave the passengers the bad news, and then we fumbled our way through the dark back to the terminal.

As expected, a three-minute power reset exorcised our electrical demons, but it took longer to sign off the logbook, re-enter our flight plan and performance data in the FMS, and realign the IRS. By the time we pushed back the second time, 45 minutes late, the clouds had lightened to a grim steely grey. We were engulfed almost immediately after takeoff, and didn't break out into bright sunshine until FL220. We were hoping to make up a little time enroute to LaGuardia, but New York Center slowed us down and then descended us early, back into thick, moisture-laden clouds. It was raining heavily at 10,000 feet; fat raindrops slapped the cockpit windows noisily. The usually spectacular Manhattan skyline swept by unnoticed, dank and sullen, as we strained to see LaGuardia Airport for the Expressway Visual. We spied it seven miles out and were immediately cleared for the sweeping arc around Citi Field that is spectacular fun on a nice day, but a bit stressful when you're struggling to see through the rain. Rob made a fine approach and landing.

After the usual stuttering LaGuardia taxi to the gate, we arrived nearly as late as we departed Pittsburgh. At least the gate agents were motivated for a quick turn: they began boarding within two minutes of the last passenger deplaning. I retrieved the paperwork from the gate podium and returned to the cockpit to begin preparing for our flight to Dallas. Just then a blue-shirted mechanic burst in through the cockpit door.

"We're changing your number four tire. We need everyone off the airplane."

Rob and I exchanged quizzical looks; he had just done the post-flight inspection and had mentioned nothing about a bad tire. "Show me," I said, and followed the mechanic out the door. The tire was indeed fairly bald, with little if any tread remaining in places, but there were no cuts and no cord showing through, which is usually the criteria that prompts a tire change. "They tell us to change them when there's no tread," the mechanic insisted. Fair enough; I wasn't going to argue with a mechanic taking the conservative course of action for once. I returned to the jetbridge to herd all the passengers there back up to the terminal, told the gate agent to stop boarding, then went back to the airplane and made a PA requesting that everyone on board deplane. The frustration on many of the passengers' faces was evident.

Nearly everyone was gone when the mechanic came bounding back up the stairs from the ramp. "We're not going to change it after all!" he exclaimed. "Maintenance control didn't realize you're taking it to Minneapolis today, we're just going to put it on RT for three flight cycles." I thought a minute; long, dry runways were awaiting us in both Dallas and Minneapolis. "Yeah, let's go."

The gate agent threw up his hands and laughed almost manically when I told him we were good to board after all. Bill had a crooked grin on his face when I returned to the airplane. "You know it's the curse of the last day, don't you?" Yeah, the thought had crossed my mind. This was day four of a four-day trip, and we were all eager to go home. It's pretty uncanny just how often that's a recipe for things to go wrong. The vast majority of my diversions and major mechanical events have taken place on the last day of a trip. I'm not very superstitious, but I've almost come to expect it.

But this time, our luck apparently turned.  The tire episode, while frustrating, didn't delay us by much. We still managed a 35-minute turn. After a relatively short-for-LaGuardia 30 minute taxi out, the flight to Dallas was pleasant and, with only 40 knot headwinds, a mere 3 hours 10 minutes long. Dallas gave us a good turn, we didn't get stuck behind any American jets being taxied by the bankruptcy judge, and we made it to Minneapolis only a few minutes late to enjoy the remainder of a stunningly beautiful autumn day at home. Not much of a curse, I thought...this time!

Friday, September 21, 2012


I haven't made the jump to an electronic logbook just yet. I want to, particularly every few months when I drag out my paper logbook to laboriously copy in entries, but the unenviable task of manually keying in my previous 9000 hours has thus far kept me from making the leap. But if I did have a fancy electronic logbook, I could whip out fun statistics like which airport I've landed at the most. I'm almost certain it's MSP. I suppose PDX and SEA would be close seconds from my time at Horizon, with the various other Alaska and WidgetCo hubs well represented.

But of non-hub airports, I'm guessing that I've flown into Vancouver BC (YVR) the most. It was a frequent Q400 destination from both Portland and Seattle, and it was one of NewCo's very first destinations; we've been flying there nearly continuously since 2007. I've bid it as much as possible, partly because it's one of my favorite destinations, and partly because the distance from Minneapolis makes for efficient pairings.

I've been back in Minnesota nearly five years now, and while I've come to a new appreciation of my native state, I do still miss living in the Pacific Northwest. The flight to Vancouver - across the Rockies near Helena, passing over Spokane, crossing the Cascades by Lake Chelan and descending just south of Mt Baker, then turning northwest over Bellingham - feels like a homecoming. Seeing the jagged peaks and emerald valleys of the North Cascades, the fir-carpeted islets of the San Juans set in the glittering Rosario Straight, and the snowcapped dome of Rainier floating serenely above it all puts a lump in my throat.

The city of Vancouver is one of my favorites anywhere in the world, the very image of what a modern world city nestled between the sea and a rugged wilderness should look like. Yeah, it's expensive, and you have the hassle of customs, and it's a bit of a hike from our crew hotel to downtown - but it feels like we've actually flown somewhere. Waking up in Omaha or Dallas or Louisville, you might as well have been teleported. If the layover is long enough, there's no shortage of things to do in Vancouver, whether it's barhopping downtown or walking in Stanley Park or hiking the Grouse Grind or watching seaplanes take off and land over a pint at the Flying Beaver. Even if you don't want to venture very far from the crew hotel, there's a lot nearby. I've never been bored in YVR.

The other thing about Vancouver is that the airport is quite easy to fly in and out of, considering it's the third largest city in Canada and its airspace is somewhat constricted by terrain and ubiquitous GA traffic. The downwind is seldom longer than 10 miles. They usually land us on 26R/8L, even when coming from the south, making for a short taxi straight into the gate. For some reason they restrict departures to 26L/8R, making for a somewhat long taxi out, but once you get to the runway you seldom wait more than a minute or two to depart. The departure off 26L is always gorgeous, with a big sweeping left-hand turn that takes in views of the Georgian Straight, Gulf Islands, Vancouver Islands, and Puget Sound to the south. Our usual departure takes us right over Mt Baker; I occasionally request a few miles deviation either side and give the passengers a nice view.

I had a regrettably short Vancouver layover last week, but the morning departure was as clear and beautiful as I've ever seen it. The sun was just peeking above the Cascades as we turned eastward, and by the time we were over Mount Baker all the snowy peaks were turned pink in the morning alpenglow. You could see as far south as Mt Adams, despite smoke from fires in that area. This was particularly exciting because that night, after my trip was over, I was flying back west once more for a weekend of hiking, dirt-biking, and beer-drinking with friends in Portland. The Pacific Northwest has had an exceptionally nice late summer; at one point Portland went 53 days without recorded rainfall.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one other thing I like about YVR: our ground staff. The rampers, who are contractors and have been through some turmoil the last few years, are diligent, hard-working, and always ready to marshal us in when I taxi up. The WidgetCo gate agents are a friendly, helpful bunch, even for Canadians. Several are even readers of this blog. It's really nice to pull into gate 86 and see a smiling, familiar face at the jetbridge. This was a more common thing when we were a small airline and flew only a few places, but now we have so many destinations - and my trips are so varied - that there aren't many gate agents I'm on a first-name basis with anymore. YVR is a happy exception. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Being a morning person is a tremendously helpful attribute in an airline pilot, and I'm just not. Ever since adolescence, I've been a pretty serious night owl, with my peak hours typically occurring between 8pm and midnight. This worked well when I was freight-dogging, and may yet prove fortuitous to flying red-eye transcons and ocean crossings. In my present incarnation as a regional airline pilot, though, it's a bit of a handicap. We have a lot of early morning report times, especially in the ultra-efficient trips I like to bid, and I have to work to adjust my body clock accordingly. I can usually function well on six hours of sleep, assuming I started the trip without a sleep deficit, sprinkling in short naps as needed.

Even this means that those really painful 3am wake-up calls for a 4am showtime require getting to sleep by 9pm, which is quite early for me.  Last week I had one of those in Bismark, North Dakota, for a 5am flight to Minneapolis followed by an east coast turn. I was in bed by 9pm, and tossed and turned for hours on end before finally falling asleep, only to be jolted awake by my alarm clock seemingly only minutes later. A hot shower did little to clear the fog. I fought the nods during the 15-minute van ride to the airport. I chugged two cups of coffee before departure time. By the time we pushed back, I was wide awake and ready to assume my Captainly duties of groping around a dark, uncontrolled field under construction and then taking off into inky skies and darting around a large line of storms - but the fatigue was still palpable, a slow steady hiss in the back of my head that grew louder as the flight went on. By the time we were descending into Minneapolis, I was contemplating the possibility of a fatigue call to crew scheduling. They wouldn't like that this early.

 Minneapolis was appropriately quiet at 6am and approach control almost immediately cleared us to 4000 feet; I hustled down, anticipating a short approach. As we leveled, I spun the speed selector back to 200 knots, and at an appropriate speed commanded "Flaps 1." The FO reached for the flap handle and slid it back into the first detente. Normally this results in a 10-second sequence of the slats moving 15 degrees down, followed by 5 degrees of flaps, during which the airplane pitches down appreciably as the lift devices enable a lower angle of attack. Instead we were immediately rewarded with a loud "ding!," flashing yellow master caution lights, and four messages displayed on the EICAS:


As I reached to press the caution switchlight to cancel the alarm, the first thought that sprung into my head was "why now!?" Readers who have flown the CRJ series will laugh at this, but I've never had to do a real-life zero-flap landing in the JungleBus. I've had a few friends who've done it, and they said it wasn't too bad, but things happen pretty quickly and you touch down uncomfortably close to the JungleBus' 195 knot maximum tire speed. It didn't sound like something I really cared to do with my brain fogged in from lack of sleep and the still-early hour. This indulgence lasted for maybe two seconds before a deeply-seated imperative forced its way up through my sleep-clouded consciousness and crowded everything else out: "QRH!"

"I have the airplane and the radios. Slat Fail QRH, please." The FO already had the spiral-bound, plastic-tabbed rectangular booklet that is the JungleBus' Quick Reference Handbook out and was thumbing to the appropriate page. The Slat Fail checklist seemed like the natural place to start, as the failure happened while we were deploying slats and the other messages were all related to them. I spun the airspeed back up a few knots to give us more margin from the now-undepicted stall speed. While the FO began reading the checklist, I told Minneapolis approach that we had a malfunction we needed to diagnose and requested an extended downwind. No problem, the controller said, and asked if we were declaring an emergency. "Not at this time, but we'll keep you posted." A zero-flap landing would likely merit the precaution of rolling the trucks. 

It turned out to be unnecessary. The very first step in the QRH was to return the slat/flap handle to its last position - UP - and see if the messages cleared. They did. The second step was to extend the slats again and see if the messages returned. The slats and flaps deployed normally this time. "Proceed with normal operations." QRH complete. We thanked Minneapolis Approach for their assistance, and they turned us onto a 25 mile final for an easy visual to 30R. 

So it turned out to be a complete nonevent, one of those things that happens pretty routinely when flying an electronic airplane like the JungleBus, a quick control-alt-delete fix-it. It's doubtful any of our passengers even noticed the extended downwind. It was part of the "almost nothing worth blogging about" I mentioned in my last post. It didn't even interrupt our trip, for although I wrote up the malfunction and it almost certainly required computer replacement as it was the second occurrence in four days, we were scheduled to swap to another airplane anyways. The primary, rather agreeable result of the incident was to provide just enough of a diversion to jolt me into full useful consciousness. I didn't feel the least bit tired afterwards, and flew a pleasant turn to Hartford and back to finish the trip. 

But that's really the point of the procedural, aircraft, and training safety systems we have in place. They turn most potential events into non-events, because there's seldom any doubt about what to do. Even a fatigue-addled brain automatically knows through repetition to fly the airplane, call for the QRH, and coordinate with ATC while the non-flying pilot runs the checklist. Had the slats not healed themselves and we actually had to perform a zero-flap landing, even this would have been relatively easy because the guidance on how to do it is quite explicit, and I've done it a number of times in the simulator. Over the years, I've occasionally decried the lack of emphasis on stick and rudder skills and common sense in pilot training, but the flip coin to that is that turning airline pilots into checklist-reading automatons has itself undoubtedly done a great deal for safety.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Summer Aloft

A long, hot Minnesota summer is rapidly drawing to a close, although nobody has informed the weather gods just yet - it's nearly 90 degrees in Minneapolis as I write. Dawn is back in her sweltering, non-air conditioned classroom, preparing for a fresh onslaught of restless seventh graders after Labor Day. Soon enough her kids will be settled in and learning their algebra, the air will turn crisp, and the leaves will summon one last burst of brilliance before falling to be buried by the first snowfall. A long, hot summer that passed too quickly and slipped away too soon, as Minnesota summers do.

As it happened, a good portion of it wasn't even spent in Minnesota. There was work, of course, with several 90+ hour months despite my best intentions to fly as little as possible; my airline had an unexpected spike in block hours and it was "all hands on deck." The work was good, though, with a lot of west coast flying and the attendant good weather and interesting scenery and fun layovers and almost nothing worth blogging about. I was hassled by surprisingly few thunderstorms even when my trips loitered in the midwest or strayed east. And despite the heavy workload, I found the time to take a ten-day whirlwind tour of Italy with my younger brother Steve and a friend of his.

The rest of my free time was filled with family functions and motorcycle rides and camping and road trips and days on Lake Minnetonka - for Steve and I bought an old sailboat, currently parked in our driveway to Dawn's dismay. But none of these were as central to my summer as was flying - not button-pushing or cockpit managing or whatever you want to call what I do for work, but flying! I had not one but two classic birds "of my own" to take up, and I took them up as much as possible. It was the most just-for-fun flying I've ever done. The only time I came close was in the summer of 1999, between high school and college, when I flew as much as my minimum-wage job could support.

We took the Cessna 170 to Dawn's family reunion in Glenwood, and later to visit her parents and pick up our nephew in Wheaton. We took the 170 to EAA Oshkosh and camped under her wing for three nights. We took early morning dawn patrols and late evening sunset cruises. I made countless circles of Lake Minnetonka and flybys of downtown Minneapolis skyscrapers. I took a ton of people flying: crewmembers, friends, siblings, parents, in-laws, cousins, nephews and niece, family friends, young eagles and others who'd never flown in a small plane. One beautiful Sunday a few weekends ago, I took eight people up over five flights in the 170 and the Cub.

Speaking of which, I'm beginning to get comfortable in the J-3, and I'm really starting to appreciate what a good, honest little airplane it is. Hand-propping is getting easier, and it'll usually start on the first or second blade. Dawn finding the back seat much easier to get into, I've started flying it from the front seat, an entirely different experience. Our flights are usually local to Airlake, with occasional meanderings across the cornfields to the grass strips at Stanton or Wipline. The door stays open, making warm days comfortable and encouraging the occasional friendly wave to boaters and farmers peering skyward at our little yellow airplane. Even my mom, who generally dislikes small planes and has only flown with me thrice, loved the Cub, open door and all. So did my nine-year-old nephew Dylan, who I recently took to Stanton in the Cub for a picnic lunch while we watched the gliders launch and recover. Dylan is well on his way to being a little airplane fanatic.

The Cub is a delightfully easy plane to land, particularly when wheel-landing it, and it handles crosswinds much better than its light construction would seem to suggest. In the 170, my wheel landings have improved dramatically with practice, proving that my previous bouncers weren't entirely the steel spring landing gear's fault. My approach and landing to 18R at Oshkosh - a tight left base to a 3-pointer right on the pink dot - was a thing of beauty. I did have a well-worn tailwheel tire blow out on landing at PNM, which was an interesting experience to say the least, but I kept the ole 170 out of the weeds. Guess my preflights should be a little more critical, eh? Learning to fly these old airplanes better has been a rewarding part of my summer aloft.

With Dawn going back to school and the temperatures dropping and the days shortening, I figure the flying will drop off a bit. The 170 will get moved back to Buffalo, and we'll be closing the Cub's door more often. Still, there are the fall colors to look forward to, and then the possibility of flying the 170 on skis if we get more snow this winter than last. And even if I don't get up as much as I'd like, I have many wonderful memories of warm evenings spent soaring low over golden wheatfields and rustling oaks and sun-speckled lakes to last me through the long, dark Minnesota winter.