Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cross Country

It's an enormous, wide spread land we Americans inhabit, and we seldom recognize that fact. We think little of flying from coast to coast in five or six hours, and many coastal denizens derisively refer to the massive expanse in between as "flyover country." In this country, a two or three hundred mile drive is practically local. Embarking on that cherished American tradition, the cross-country road trip, gives one some idea of the size of the continent - but even then, one can cover the 2800 miles from New York to LA in three or four long days on fast, smooth interstates. In 2010, I rode my old BMW motorcycle around the circumference of the Lower 48, much of it on slower byways, and it took 41 days of riding, several of them 500-1000 miles long. It was a great way to reconnect with my homeland and discover its beauty, variety, and sheer immensity anew.

The entire time I was riding, though, I was thinking "I wonder what this looks like from the air?". The funny thing is that I had already flown over nearly all the roads I was traveling, but from six or seven miles high while speeding along at nine or ten miles a minute. That lofty perspective shrinks the land, both literally and figuratively, beyond all recognition. What I really wanted to do was fly the breadth of the U.S. by small airplane. I do not, however, own a small airplane. Even after I started flying the club C170, $6 avgas put a big cross-country trip out of my budget.

And then Johnny G, who I taught to fly ten years ago, emailed me out of the blue, excited that he had finally secured hangar space for his beloved 1984 Piper Warrior in his hometown in Connecticut. The plane was currently hangared in California, where Johnny formerly lived and still visited often for business. He had flown it all of six hours in 2011, and thus was very excited to get it back to CT where he would use it more. Owing to his relative lack of currency, though, he didn't want to do the trip alone, and in any case would like to do some IFR training along the way. Would I be interested in coming along as his CFI, Johnny wanted to know.

Boy, would I! There were only two problems. The first was that my CFI certificate was lapsed. The second is that my airline doesn't allow me to do outside commercial flying, and even if I could get them to make an exception it is doubtful there would be any month where I could legally fit a 25 hour cross country into my monthly and weekly flight time limits. Johnny fixed the first problem by suggesting I use his airplane to get my CFI reinstated with one of the SoCal examiners I used to send students to. Done. I solved the second problem by agreeing to provide instruction, but not receive compensation for it, making it non-commercial flying. Johnny balked at that, so I suggested that if it was really that important to him, he could make a donation to EAA's scholarship fund instead of paying me.

Thus, a beautifully clear SoCal morning found us breaking ground from Brackett Field, just off old Route 66 near its western terminus, climbing southeast on the departure procedure to Paradise VOR. We had decided to do as much of the flying as possible under IFR. This was challenging at first due to high Minimum Enroute Altitudes (MEAs), warm temperatures, and a 160 hp Warrior with full fuel, two adults, and a bunch of cargo that put us about 100 lbs under max gross weight. The old girl made it up to V64's MEA of 11,000 feet though, and later that day to 10,000 feet at ISA+15 temps. At that altitude we enjoyed a hefty tailwind and miserly fuel burns.

The other challenge of doing it all IFR was that I hadn't had a chance to do any instrument instruction with Johnny prior to setting out, other than a string of emails, phone calls, and a two-hour crash course in IFR flight planning that morning. Usually a student has 20 or 25 hours of instrument instruction under their belt before starting IFR cross-countries. I warned Johnny that it would be intensive and not necessarily the best environment to learn the basics; best to view it as a real-world introduction to IFR flight, with the serious training to be done back in CT with a full-time instructor. Johnny agreed, saying that anything learned in the course of the trip would be a better use of the time than droning along VFR. Thus, our first few flights used a very unorthodox method of IFR instruction. Initially I navigated and communicated, telling Johnny which headings to turn to and altitudes to intercept and maintain. Then I put him under the hood and had him do the same. Then I turned over enroute communication, and later all communication including copying clearances on the ground and in the air. Meanwhile I (re)taught him how to intercept and track VOR radials, and then had him take over all navigation duties using the enroute chart. I occasionally covered up instruments to give him partial-panel practice. I talked him though a few VOR approaches, although I knew a long cross-country is suited very poorly to teaching approaches so I didn't take it much further than that. To maximize learning, minimize rushing, and make it an overall more enjoyable experience, I split the route into four days of about six hours apiece, generally two three-hour flights.

Along the way Johnny got nearly two hours of actual IMC, experienced flying instruments during moderate turbulence, encountered some mountain wave, and flew into a wide variety of airports from sleepy Big Spring TX to bustling El Paso Int'l, Dallas Executive, and Knoxville. The third day we planned our way around and behind a large line of severe thunderstorms, and the fourth day dealt with widespread fog in the morning. We never encountered airframe icing but got a little in the carb, and had a good discussion on how to avoid and exit icing conditions in a single-engine airplane. We called flightwatch several times, and used it to make an airborne continue-or-land decision. All in all, it was exactly the sort of experience I sorely wished I had before I first got my instrument ticket.

The first day we departed late to Chandler, Arizona, arrived just after the on-field restaurant closed at 2pm, and borrowed a hilariously dilapidated Mercury Grand Marquis very much like my old Buick LeSabre "Grandpamobile" to drive to lunch. After departure, the wrinkled topography of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico was beautifully rendered in late afternoon light, and then the sky faded to velvet as we paralleled lonely NM Highway 9 on our way into El Paso.

The next morning we called a mechanic to lube what we thought was a binding trim wheel, which turned out to be a huge, five-hour ordeal to disable a sticking electric trim servo. It was a five-minute job; most of the extra time was spent removing almost all of Johnny's beautiful, custom leather interior which failed to retain the factory access to the tailcone! It was 2pm by the time the little Warrior clawed its way into the hot, thin air. Fortunately this was our shortest day. It was about two and a half hours to Big Spring TX, a quiet uncontrolled oil-country field with an enormous runway (ex-AFB), and then another two hours plus to Dallas Executive Airport. We scarfed vending machine "food" before taking off from El Paso, didn't get lunch in Big Spring, and were both tired and ravenous by the time we landed in Dallas at nearly 8pm. The field was one of the darkest I've ever seen - we could barely see the runway lights even when one mile away - and it was amazingly deserted. Nobody answered the radio at Ambassador Jet Center, and it took a while to find anyone after we shut down. They redeemed themselves with fairly cheap gas, free hangar storage for the night, and giving us a ride to a nearby Holiday Inn Express that night and picking us up in the morning. The pizza and beer went down easy that night.

We finally got an early start the next morning, launching into a 900' overcast and breaking out into bright sunlight around 3000 feet. We were hoping to get to Ashville, NC for the night, but thunderstorms were forecast and indeed already raging over western and central Tennessee. We initially considered going around them to the west and north, but thunderstorms were forecast up north later that day, and in fact spawned several tornadoes near Detroit. We stayed south, initially aiming for Greenwood, MS. We landed there just before noon and were met at Cotton Belt Aviation by a friendly but amusingly slow-talking and moving old southern gentleman who lent us his Chrysler minivan and directed us to Crystal Diner, "the best cooking in the Mississippi Delta."

We were hurried for time due to the festering thunderstorms and decided to skip Crystal for something quicker, until we took a wrong turn into the bad part of town, accidentally wandered up an unmarked one-way street, and unexpectedly found ourselves smack-dab in front of Crystal despite ourselves. We decided to sample the best cooking in the Delta after all, because nothing else in Greenwood looked remotely appealing. In my previous foray across Mississippi on the BMW, I somehow managed to only visit nice-looking towns with little of Mississippi's noted poverty on display. If I'd been looking for that, turns out I only needed to visit Greenwood. The food was indeed fantastic at Crystal, but we didn't linger in town afterwards. Mississippi looked beautiful from 5000 feet, though. Everything was extremely green from the early spring.

Ashville looked increasingly improbable due to thunderstorms, and also because any weather could easily trap us in the deep valley the next morning. Both Knoxville and Atlanta had weather popping up and passing through. We decided to go as far east as we dared, refuel and regroup, and then decide on our final destination for the night, based on what the storms were doing. We took off for Gadsden, AL, an easy two-hour flight away. It seemed like much longer than that, given that we were battered by moderate turbulence the whole way. We went up to 9000' and weren't even close to topping out the towering cumulus, so went back down and rode it out. I was actually feeling a little green when we landed in Gadsden, where the tarmac was still wet from recently passing thunderstorms. We had called flightwatch to inquire about the advisability of continuing to Knoxville, but it sounded like another line was closing in on them. At Gadsden we refueled, called the wives, refreshed ourselves with sodas, watched a C130 land to pick up a company of national guardsmen, and looked at the radar. There was indeed a line of heavy weather about to thrash Knoxville, but it was moving off of our route pretty quickly, and there was a sizable gap of four or five hours before the next line of dissipating storms would arrive. Knoxville would make a good destination for the night.

We were already tired when we took off for Knoxville - we would be landing after sunset for the third night in a row, my best intentions notwithstanding - but ended up enjoying the flight immensely. The green rolling hills, horse farms, nearby foothills and mountains were all thrown into sharp relief by the setting sunlight slanting under the rainclouds. It was incredibly dramatic, and it made the 90 minute flight pass very quickly. As predicted, the thunderstorms had left Knoxville by the time we arrived, although they made an impressive light show on the eastern horizon. Exhausted by over seven hours of flying, we turned in soon after our late dinner.

We decided to start early the next morning in order to arrive in Connecticut by mid-afternoon, but our plans were foiled by dense fog in Knoxville and all along our first leg. The TAFs called for it all to burn off by mid-morning, but fog can be a tricky thing to forecast. We went to the airport a little later than planned and then tarried, keeping a close eye on the METARs to make sure things were progressing satisfactorily. The fog actually burned off in Knoxville quicker than planned, and our destination and alternate were shaping up nicely. We loaded up and launched. This flight, like the previous night's, was stunning. I couldn't bear to keep Johnny under the hood for very long at all. The mountains were silhouetted by the eastern sun, throwing long shadows across deep valleys still blanketed in fog. This was all country I'm fairly familiar with from airline flying and the motorcycle trip, but this flight gave me an entirely new perspective and appreciation for the beauty of eastern TN, western NC, WV, and western VA.

The beautiful little airport at Front Royal was teeming with glider activity when we landed from the steep circling VOR approach. We hoofed it a half-mile to a country store for lunch, then filled up at the self-service pumps, filed, and took off to retrieve our clearance from Potomac Approach in the air. The afternoon had turned hazy, so this flight wasn't nearly as pretty as the morning's. We were also venturing north of the green, back into the brown. Nevertheless we flew near some interesting spots, including Camp David, Gettysburg, and Johnny's original hometown of Lancaster, PA. Just north of there we were given a very extensive reroute. As I fumbled with enroute charts, trying to trace the improbable routing, Johnny flew on unpreturbed through rather lumpy cumulus clouds, "aviating, navigating, and communicating." I felt a flush of pride and remembered the part of flight instructing I always loved.

We ultimately ended up dropping below the clouds and cancelling IFR to avoid going far out of our way - welcome to the Northeast, eh? - and had a very nice VFR flight across New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. It was only a bit after 4pm - daylight! - when we approached Johnny's hometown, circled over his house, waved to his wife and kids, and landed at nearby Chester Airport. It was a blustery, squirrely day at the surprisingly tiny but busy field, and our first approach resulted in a go-around. The next attempt was successful, and N43408 was finally home after 24.8 hours of flying. We opened Johnny's new hangar, restacked the Champ and 172 that are his PA28's new stablemates, and I patted the good old bird on the nose as we parted company. It's a big country, after all, and you have to appreciate a good machine that can take you the distance in safety and comfort.

Monday, March 26, 2012


Most non-military airline pilots today were flight instructors at some point in their career. It's the easiest way to build flight time early in your career, and most ex-instructors agree that the experience is invaluable. Not everyone enjoys it, mind you, and even those liked instructing are usually happy they don't have to do it anymore. It's a very rare airline pilot that does any instructing outside the airline's own training department, not least because most airlines restrict their pilots' outside commercial flying. Still, many airline pilots keep their CFI certificates current. You never know when you'll be back at square one in this industry, and it's a fairly simple process to renew the certificates every two years. "I worked too hard for my CFI to let it lapse," is a common sentiment.

I enjoyed instructing, have family members interested in flying, and don't mind doing the occasional BFR for ex-students, so I kept my CFI current for years after I ceased actively instructing. Until three years ago, that is, when I accidentally let it lapse. The FAA had reissued all my certificates with new numbers (the old ones used my social security number); the problem is that they did this only a month after I had renewed my CFI, so I forgot that my expiration month was one month before the issuance date on the front of the certificate. Two years later, I went into the local FSDO to renew, only to be told I was a month late. Once a CFI expires, the only way to get it back current is via "reinstatement," or essentially retaking your CFI checkride. Many instructors have recurring nightmares about their first CFI checkride, and have no desire to repeat the experience!

Thus, I was a lapsed CFI for the last three years. I kept meaning to get it reinstated, especially after I got back into general aviation, but never got around to it. The sad thing is that I had an airplane available to do it in the whole time, a very nice Warrior belonging to an ex-student in Southern California. I knew several DPEs in SoCal fairly well and one agreed to do my checkride whenever I was ready. Still I procrastinated, until about a month ago when I decided to finally get it done. I set up a checkride for March 10th and hit the books.

Although I've been flying the C170 alot, it's been a few years since I've flown a PA28 and a good nine or ten since I've seen a chandelle or lazy eight. I also haven't flown from the right seat since upgrading in 2008. Some practice was clearly in order. I flew out to LA the week before the checkride intending to fly my ex-student's Warrior, but there was an unexpected hitch. The plane was just out of annual, the shop was supposed to leave the keys for me, but they either forgot or hid them very cleverly as I was unable to find them. My ex-student had a spare set but was in Connecticut at the time. The trip wasn't quite a waste as I did meet up with my good friend Kelly who is now a mechanic for FedEx and went sailing at Marina del Rey. But it meant I'd be taking my checkride with little or no practice. I called the examiner and he swapped my checkride around to the afternoon of the 10th so I could practice in the morning.

Saturday before last, I arrived at Brackett Airport bright and early. It was a brilliantly clear, smooth morning, absolutely perfect for flying. The airport itself is unchanged from when it was my home turf as a flight instructor and freight dog, but it has only a fraction of the traffic it had then. There were five busy flight schools on the field in 2002, and now there are two small ones. Back then, the traffic pattern would be humming by 8am on a nice weekend morning, but Johnny and I seemed to be the only ones on the field when we arrived. As I flew throughout the day, the airspace seemed far less congested than I remember. It's a sad commentary on the state of general aviation that even Los Angeles' airspace is fairly sane these days.

It was my first time seeing Johnny's 1984 Piper Warrior. It's a very sweet little bird, far nicer than the ratty Pipers I used to fly at ADP. It has clean original paint, a sensible steam-gauge and digital IFR panel, and very nice leather interior that Johnny had installed at considerable cost ("It was this or a new SR22. The new interior was a bargain by comparison"). As I settled into the right seat, the old familiar controls fell comfortably to hand. Perhaps I remembered more than I thought! We started up, taxied out, finished the runup, and took off. We stayed in the pattern for six landings, since this was the plane's first flight since coming out of annual. I ran through the litany of normal, short-field, and soft-field takeoffs and landings, and power-off accuracy approaches. They all felt very good and were entirely satisfactory, as though I'd never left the plane. I guess a thousand hours in various iterations of the PA28 made some sort of impression on me. Landings complete, I headed out to the strangely quiet practice area. In the summer of 2001 alone, I had no less than 15 scary-close near-misses in the teeming practice areas around Brackett. Slow flight, stalls, and steep turns were every bit as docile as I remembered the PA28 being. I did a few good chandelles and faked my way through lazy eights, chattering the whole time like the CFI I was supposed to be pretending to be. I dropped down low and did a turns around points and across roads, and completely botched my eights-on-pylons. Oh well, I always hated that pointless maneuver and never did do one that looked much like whatever it's supposed to look like. And then back to Brackett for a quick breakfast and my 11:30am checkride.

The checkride turned out to be a non-event. I knew the examiner and had sent a number of students to him, but wasn't expecting a free pass, and he followed the PTS faithfully. He did not, however, require anything beyond the fairly perfunctory number of tasks the PTS requires for a reinstatement. There were a few takeoffs and landings, a couple stalls, some slow flight, some steep turns, a chandelle, a turns-across-roads (no eights-on-pylons, thank God), and a few other minor tasks. It took less than an hour, and suddenly I was a new CFI/II/MEI once again. Johnny urged me to fly the plane some more so I flew to Zamperini Field in Torrance to pick up my friend Kelly. We flew around Palos Verdes, across Long Beach Harbor, and down the Orange County coast to Laguna Beach. Turning around, we climbed to 4500' and transited the LAX SFRA, then dropped back down along Malibu Beach out to Point Dume. Coming back the other way, we hugged the Santa Monica Mountains past the Hollywood sign and Griffith Park Observatory and transited the 210 freeway past the Rose Bowl and Santa Fe Dam back to Brackett, landing as the sun was setting. It was a gorgeous reminder of everything I loved about flying in Southern California. It was Kelly's first time in a light plane in a while and her first aerial view of her adopted home, and she loved it.

Certificated or not, I won't be putting out my flight school shingle any time soon. Hours spent flying for compensation, instruction included, are counted against the weekly and monthly flight time limits at my airline job; my airline is understandably loath to share me with anyone else. So any instructing I do will be purely for the fun of it, with family, friends, and maybe an ex-student or two. That said, I expect having my CFI again to open up some interesting opportunities, one of which I did last week. It's long been a dream of mine to fly clear across the country in a small plane. As it happens, I have a certain ex-student who wished to relocate his nice-but-underused Warrior from Southern California to Connecticut. Stay tuned.