Monday, December 14, 2015

The Last Tour

I was originally awarded the 757/767 back in February, but this came on a fairly open-ended bid that allowed the company to converted awarded pilots more or less when they pleased (though always in seniority order). At the time the thinking was that they needed us on the line yesterday, and I assumed I'd be trained and on the line by July. As it turned out, I was dead wrong and got to enjoy another sweaty summer on the Mad Dog. I then would have been placed in training in October, except that was when I had two weeks of vacation, and in the bid preferences I had asked for the vacation to be honored. After all, that was when I was heading down to the BVI for my fourth year of sailing in the Interline Regatta. Because of the vacation, PBS only assigned me six days of flying in October, a four-day trip before the regatta and a two-day to end the month. I was subsequently assigned a 6 Nov class date, and despite my best efforts to get 1-5Nov off, PBS assigned a two-day trip on the 1st and 2nd.

I caught a lucky break and had my early October trip pulled for newhire OE, since I was paired up with a line check airman. This left me with only four days of flying to finish up my stint on the Mad Dog, 30Oct-2Nov. Coming back to any airplane after a full month off is a little uncomfortable, but once you've been on it a while it only takes a leg or two to get back into the swing of things. Of course I'd already been hard at work studying for my new airplane for a few weeks, and I had a couple minor screwups due to the negative transfer (on one takeoff roll I accidentally called "80 knots, throttle hold, thrust normal" instead of "Clamp, 80 knots, thrust normal" - which the captain thought was hilarious). Overall, though, I didn't make too many "short-timer's" mistakes.

Lord knows there was plenty of opportunity to screw the pooch. The first three days were a hilariously bad compendium of the assorted and well-known ravages of Mad Dog flying that keep senior FOs on widebody fleets long after they can hold MD captain. The weather was dogshit all up and down the east coast - low ceilings, wind, and rain - with the attendant flow programs and major delays going in and out of hub airports. We seemed to have maintenance issues on nearly every leg: a bunch of MELs, or unusual ones that required extra study, or open writeups from prior crew, breakages during preflight, and glitches enroute. We had the exact same malfunction I wrote about in my column earlier this year: the FMS spontaneously dumped all route and performance data, apparently due to a momentary power interruption. This time it happened while descending at night on a complex RNAV arrival (and getting the snot kicked out of us in heavy rain); I saw the problem right away and immediately reverted to lower automation levels while the captain coaxed a simpler clearance out of the clearly-displeased controller. That was on leg three of a long four-leg day - with two plane swaps - in and out of our largest hub. The next leg (different airplane) saw me hand-flying a no-kidding ILS approach into mountainous Asheville, NC, after the autopilot did a decidedly unsatisfactory job of tracking the localizer. We broke out about a hundred feet above minimums. Despite our late-night arrival and the driving rain, the captain accompanied me to one of my favorite Asheville watering holes for a nightcap. The brew went down easy on my last Mad Dog layover.

The last day started the same as the first three, with rain and low ceilings prompting flow delays into "Mecca." Our last leg to Minneapolis, thankfully, was blissfully smooth once we got past Nashville. The weather was decent in Minnesota, we broke out of the high overcast to see the lights of the Twin Cities stretched before us, and ATC cleared us for the visual approach quite early. I clicked off the autopilot and autothrottles at 8000 feet and enjoyed my last time handflying the old gal around the pattern to Runway 12R. My last landing wasn't perfect, but it wasn't horrible either; I'll take it. It was a little surreal to think I may have landed that plane for the last time, though I rather suspect I'll have another crack at Mad Dog wrangling at some point in my career. In the meantime, I've been advised that any misplaced nostalgia for the Mad Dog will likely disappear right about when I land the Boeing 757 for the first time!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Ode to Mad Dog

Long before I was assigned the Mad Dog, I knew I was destined to fly her. My company assigns seniority within new-hire classes according to the last four digits of your social security number, and with a sub-0300 SSN I was guaranteed to be one of the most junior in my class and assigned by default to the most junior seat at the airline: New York Mad Dog FO. I was at peace with that, and after six plus years of the stultifyingly automated JungleBus I was honestly ready for a challenge and a change of pace. The Mad Dog’s rugged design and old-school cockpit held a certain attraction for me, and my only real regret was that I never got a chance to fly the DC-9 before it was retired.

That said, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how busy the Mad Dog is, particularly in the right seat during ground operations. The preflight, pushback, after engine start, taxi, before takeoff, after takeoff, descent, approach, before landing, after landing, and shutdown flow patterns and checklists are all considerably longer than on the JungleBus (a couple of those nearly three times as long). Engine starts just about require three hands. Quite a few switches on the right side of the cockpit belong to the FO even while Pilot Flying with the autopilot off. The airplane has VNAV and autothrottles, but both are glitchy enough to require close attention and frequent intervention to smooth out their operation and ensure compliance with restrictions. The relatively small wing means that very careful attention must be paid to speed and maneuvering margins both after takeoff and at cruise altitude, which seldom exceeds FL330. The brakes are by turns pitifully weak and unpredictably grabby, and it’s nigh impossible to symmetrically deploy and spool up the thrust reversers. This is an airplane with a fairly steep learning curve; I did well in training only by studying my ass off (it also helped to have a sharp training partner with experience on the airplane).

Coming to the line as a brand new FO was an eye-opening workout. Many of the captains I initially flew with on reserve had been on the airplane for years and were used to an experienced FO’s pace of operations. I sometimes had to remind them that I was new and needed a little more time. Every trip I made mistakes, found more gotchas, learned new tips and tricks, and saw more unfamiliar glitches and failure modes. There’s a lot of tribal knowledge among Mad Dog drivers, much of it not written down anywhere. And then, after a couple months, I was able to hold a junior line and often flew with captains who were themselves brand new to both the airplane and the left seat. With only a couple hundred hours in the airplane, I was occasionally the “experienced guy” passing on my scant slice of the tribal knowledge.

I passed the magic 400-hour mark, releasing me from probation, after only five months of line flying. Remarkably, I found myself getting comfortable with the airplane. Actually, that’s not exactly the right way to put it, because I continued watching the Mad Dog as closely as ever, if not more so. Perhaps it is better to say that I got comfortable with being uncomfortable. Relaxed preflights, clean uncluttered cockpits, flawlessly smooth autopilots and autothrottles, and trying to stay awake as we blithely cruised across the country at FL370 all faded from memory until they seemed like distant, fanciful dreams. I came to simply accept the Mad Dog’s flaws and quirks as just the way life is. I didn’t pine for a more relaxed, more sophisticated airplane. The hardest part of coming to the Mad Dog is coming to the Mad Dog, and that was already done.

And in fact, once I accepted the plane’s busyness and quirkiness, I actually found quite a few things about it that I really liked. For starters, it’s built like a brick shithouse. The systems are simple and robust, and while there’s not a great deal of redundancy the plane doesn’t really need it as it’s not horribly dependent on hydraulics, electric, etc. The primary flight controls are all manual, with control cables driving servo tabs. It hand flies pretty well for being a notorious truck; though control forces are fairly high, it’s easy to put the plane right where you want it and keep it there. Near-centerline thrust makes single-engine work a cakewalk. The extension speeds on the very draggy flaps are ridiculously high (starting at 280 kts) so it’s easy to get down when you find yourself high. The pilots are so far forward of the engines that even on the JT8D model it’s really quiet, and though the cockpit looks like the bridge of a Russian submarine, it's actually laid out pretty logically. The Flight Mode Annunciator may look like a 1980s football scoreboard but it’s large and visible in any lighting conditions. And once you figure out the myriad controls for the cockpit lighting, it’s almost infinitely customizable which makes for a very comfortable nighttime environment.

I found myself growing downright fond of the airplane. More than one friend suggested that my newfound appreciation for the Mad Dog was nothing more than Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps. The reality is that, much like taildraggers, a certain amount of the Mad Dog’s cachet comes not despite its flaws but because of them. It’s frequently stated to be a “real man’s airplane” (though I hasten to add that several female friends have flown it for years and claim to love it). Airbus pilots, like Cherokee drivers, are considered perhaps a little suspect for no other reason than that their airplanes can camouflage weak flying skills, while Mad Dog wranglers, like tailwheel pilots, get a (sometimes undeserved!) presumption of competence. In 757/767 training, each instructor has asked what fleet I’m coming from and, informed of my Mad Dog status, to a man they’ve given a relieved little wave and assured me I’d do great on the Boeing.

Given all this, I wasn’t planning on leaving the Mad Dog anytime soon. I enjoyed the fruits of its juniority, spending a mere six weeks on reserve in New York, soon thereafter holding weekends-off regular lines, and then getting back to Minneapolis after eight months of commuting. Of the other aircraft in my base, the Airbus has remained improbably senior (nobody wants to leave it!) and the 757/767 category was slowly shrinking. But then pending aircraft retirements were cancelled, the category got additional flying, there was movement from senior FOs upgrading to captain, and suddenly there was a bid out for fifty (!) MSP 757/767 FOs. I ran the numbers and concluded I’d have about the same seniority in either airplane. The Boeing paid more and had better trips, though I might not be able to hold international flying. I was still undecided when I had lunch with (now-former) Flying editor Robert Goyer on an Austin layover. I mentioned the possibility of bidding the Boeing but noted I’d have to spend a month at training. “Don’t you like training for new airplanes?” prodded Goyer. He had a point, I actually do, and I've wanted to fly the 757 since I was ten years old. That decided it; I put the bid in that night.

I was awarded the Boeing in February and didn’t start training until November 5th, so I had plenty of extra time to appreciate the Mad Dog. The last four days on the plane were so hilariously Maddogish that they merit their own separate post. Meanwhile I wrap up training on the Boeing in a couple days and will be enjoying some paid time off over the holidays while I wait to be assigned OE/TOE. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Across the Sea

(Originally written back in August)

"So, you're an airline pilot, huh? Do you fly the big planes?"

"Eh, more medium-ish. 149 to 160 passengers."

"I see. What's your route?"

"It changes from week to week. I go all over the U.S., but probably 75% East Coast."

"Oh. Any overseas routes?"

"No, the plane I fly is pretty range limited. I do a little close-in international."

"Like South America?"

"No. Like Nassau."

Such is cocktail party conversation as a Mad Dog pilot. My 757/767 friends talk of Paris and Palau and Rio, and such exotic ports of call may well beckon in my near future, but for now I mostly ply my trade to places like Huntsville, Buffalo, and Columbus. I have not yet landed in the Great White North with my new company. I have flown turns to Nassau several times, but was rerouted out of my one overnight there. I've laid over in Kingston, Jamaica; a tropical paradise it is not. Atlanta-based Mad Dog driver friends report dreamy wanderings to Providenciales (Turks and Caicos), Montego Bay, and Grand Cayman, but I do not believe any MSP Mad Dog wrangler has ever laid eyes on those bejeweled realms. We do, however, fly to Cancun, Mexico, and in fact I have gone there twice, most recently this past week.

Cancun is actually about as International as our humble fleet gets, for it involves legitimate "offshore" flying. Our other Caribbean destinations involve going "feet wet" (our New York-Florida routes also go offshore more often than not), but always within 162nm of land. This is as far as we can go without life rafts, with which only a handful of the Mad Dogs are equipped. The Cancun route nearly always goes further out and thus requires the raft-equipped aircraft. I'm not sure how 162nm came to be the magic number, as it seems somewhat arbitrary, but I surmise it must somehow relate to the offshore capability of rescue helicopters. I'm not certain that I would want to be 161nm from land with nothing but a life vest keeping me afloat and marginally visible to would-be rescuers, but don't ever plan on testing this scenario in depth.

Our jaunt across the Gulf of Mexico also exposes us to the world of Class II navigation, meaning outside of the reception area of most VORs. Not to worry, the Mad Dog's modern navigation equipment frees it from dependence on obsolescent land-based navaids. No, not GPS, silly! A $50 burner flip phone may have GPS accurate to within a couple feet, but not the Mad Dog! We use Inertial Navigation System, or INS, for long-range navigation. We have to do a full realignment before such a long flight, and then check it against a trusty ground-based NavAid before launching out into the trackless ether.

We also fly outside of the reach of radar for a short stretch, right around the changeover from Houston Center to Merida Center. Thus, we get a little practice in making position reports, usually on first contract with Merida southbound or Houston northbound. This still takes place within voice VHF communications range - we don't have HF radios installed, much less the CPDLC datalink systems now commonly used for trans-oceanic communications. The only communications challenges on Mad Dog international flights are of the linguistic variety: Mexican and Cuban controllers converse with local pilots in Spanish, making it a bit harder to keep track of who's doing what (my high-school/traveler smattering of Spanglish helps); their accents when speaking English also vary considerably, from slight to barely comprehensible. You just have to listen carefully and make inquiries if anything isn't perfectly clear. Recording the ATIS usually takes a few loops, and you definitely want the captain listening in before attempting to transcribe your clearance.

On my next fleet, of course, there will be far more opportunities to do overwater flying. This is an airplane that we operate to five continents, and I see all five represented in the MSP bid packet. Of course I'll be fairly junior so it's likely the majority of my flying will be domestic, but I think I'll be able to occasionally sample trips that take me further afield. The variety of flying was one of the reasons I bid the new category. Dawn and I have traveled to many of the places that the Boeing flies, so it's not necessarily the attraction of visiting new places, but moreso the appeal of doing something completely different than I've been doing for the last twelve years. I'm both a night-owl and able to sleep almost on command, so I think I'll be able to adjust well to the schedules (fingers crossed). And, of course, far-flung flying adventures always make good fodder for blogging!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Not Quite Dead

Well, uh, sorry bout that folks - I went NORDO for a couple months, which had readers wondering and querying whether the blog was dead. Nope, it's not dead - it's just restin'! But I think its rest is just about over.

Here's the long and short of it. You may have heard that my airline had a minor labor kurkuffle this summer when our pilots - for the first time ever - turned down a tentative agreement (65%-35%) and subsequently pretty much overturned the apple cart at our chapter of ALPA. I took an active and somewhat visible role in the fight against the TA, heard through the grapevine that my name had come up in high places, and decided I'd better lower my profile for a little while. I wasn't about to stop writing for Flying, but figured I could take a little break from blogging until things settled down. Well, now that the dust has cleared, we have a new MEC Chairman, a new Negotiating Committee, and a lot of new reps - all this a full month before our current contract becomes amendable. I suspect the more traditional contract negotiation process we're about to enter will drag on for several years, as it has at other companies. I'm not going to refrain from blogging that long. Writing has a certain intertia to it. Start writing, and you'll tend to keep going. Stop writing, and you tend to stay inert. In reality I probably could have resumed blogging a month or two ago.

The good news is that I have a bit of a backlog of things to write about. I actually have a few already-written posts that I'll release over the next couple days, and then I'll reflect on my last days on the Mad Dog and the preparation for and first several weeks of 757/767 training (I'm about halfway through right now). In the meantime, you should definitely check out Flying's December issue. Besides my usual column, I have a six-page feature about the flying/sailing trip to the Bahamas that I think turned out really well. Enjoy!

Monday, July 27, 2015

If Every Day Were Like Oshkosh...

You'd awake every morning at 6:30am to the beautiful music of Merlin V12s at full power as half a dozen P-51s roar overhead to embark on the dawn patrol....

You'd cheerfully chat with perfect strangers while standing in line for a lukewarm shower in a portable shower block....

You'd plan every day over eggs & pancakes at Tall Pines Cafe, deciding who you want to hear speak more that afternoon: Burt Rutan or Bob Hoover....

You'd forget that air conditioning exists, spend every day gloriously bathed in sweat, thank heaven for every little wisp of wind, and find yourself pausing in the shadows of DC-3s, B-17s, and A350s....

You'd come to find farmer's tans incredibly sexy...and your standards for attractiveness in the opposite sex would ease considerably....

Instead of traveling overseas, you'd take a 10-minute bus ride to the Seaplane Base and marvel at how quaint and beautiful and relaxed it is....

You'd almost never see litter on the street. On the rare occasions you did, someone would usually swoop in to pick it up before you could get to it....

You'd live off of burgers and cheese curds, and you'd still stay skinny from walking twenty miles a day....

You'd never actually talk to Air Traffic Control, only rocking your wings in reply. All air traffic controllers would be extremely proficient, calm under fire, and unfailingly friendly....

You'd think IFR stands for "I Follow Railroads...."

You'd be an ace at last-minute runway changes, short approaches, and spot landings....

You'd check your Facebook feed, see that a good friend just landed, and arrange to meet under the Brown Arch in an hour. Really good friends would insist on trekking two miles to admire your airplane parked in the South 40....

Your musical tastes would narrow to 70s rock, modern country, and Jerry's One Man Band....

You'd swear off airshows forever, declaring you've seen Sean Tucker doing enough impossibly violent things to airplanes to last a lifetime, only to spy a new act featuring something improbable, graceful, and arresting, and you'd end up right back on the flight line with every other slack-jawed, sky-gazing rube....

You'd go to an off-airport party, run into random friends and former coworkers and aviation journalists and airshow performers and aviation legends, and the most remarkable coincidence of the night would be meeting a guy whose hangar is right next to yours back home....

You'd find sitting in the bleachers of the ultralight grass strip at dusk, watching powered parachutes making endless circuits and passes just for the sheer joy of flight, a perfectly acceptable form of evening entertainment....

You'd drift off to sleep every night under the wing of your own airplane, bedded on soft grass, knowing you'll wake up to the roar of Merlin V12s and the promise of another full day in Airplane Heaven....

Alas, Oshkosh comes but once a year. Only 51 more weeks to go!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Hot Dog!

As mentioned a while ago, I've been awarded a slot on the 757/767, but training isn't until late October and that means I get another four months on the Mad Dog. I just had lunch with a couple of guys down in Atlanta yesterday, and though they now all fly the 757/767 one noted that he had spent "five summers on the Mad Dog...because you always measure time on that airplane in summers!" I suggested that if he's ever really bored in cruise, he should attempt to calculate how many gallons of sweat he shed over those five summers. Or not - I guess that's kinda gross.

The basic problem is that as the Mad Dog was stretched from earlier airplanes, the Auxiliary Power Unit and Air Cycle Machines ("packs") were not also upgraded to accommodate the increased cabin volume. In moderate temperatures or with both engines running at high power to put out a lot of bleed air, it's not really a problem. On the ground with a high OAT, though, both the amount of airflow and output temperature are wholly inadequate. The cockpit is a bit worse than the cabin, because you have a lot of windows, the old CRTs, electronics, and incandescent lighting put out a lot of heat, and you're sitting 120 feet forward of the packs with resulting efficiency losses through the ductwork. At times it can get miserably hot in the cockpit, especially when you're busy just before pushback. In the summer you just about have to pack a new uniform shirt & undershirt for every day of the trip.

Out of my duties as a Mad Dog FO is running the AC, largely because most of the controls are on the right side of the overhead panel. There are some tips and tricks to getting the most out of the system, and most FOs get pretty good at it. The primary controls are the packs supply switches with OFF, AUTO, and HP BLEED OFF positions, and two selector knobs, one for CKPT TEMP and one for CABIN TEMP. The indicators are L and R valve position gauges and flow gauges, as well as a larger temperature gauge that indicates either cabin temp or cabin supply duct temperature, depending on the position of a TEMP SEL knob. Most of the time this is left in the CABIN SPLY position, which along with the valve indicators is a good measure of what the system is doing at any given moment; every couple of minutes I'll flip the TEMP SEL knob over to Cabin to see how we're doing overall.

We nearly always leave the Supply switches in the AUTO position except when parked at the gate with APU off and the conditioned air hose attached to the aircraft, at which point we turn them OFF. The HP BLD OFF ("High Pressure Bleed Off") position is rarely used, though there are circumstances when it can slightly increase airflow. The temp selector switches can also usually be left in the AUTO range, which commands the system to try to attain and maintain a specific cockpit and cabin temperature. The problem is that the exact temperature you're commanding is not labeled, and every airplane is different! Most airplanes have little ink marks that previous FOs have added to show a position that works, and this makes a good starting point, but there are often multiple marks as the system changes over time with wear, maintenance and repairs. Sometimes it seems to change over the course of a single flight!

On the ground with OATs warmer than about 60º F, we leave both selector knobs pointing at about the 9 o'clock position, which commands both valves full cold and gives you about as cold of air as you can expect (sometimes adjusting them slightly higher can increase airflow, however). After takeoff, we turn the cockpit selector knob to around the 10:30 position and the cabin selector knob to slightly below whichever ink mark we've decided to use as a reference. The idea is to get the cockpit valve slightly above full cold, and the cabin valve right around the first index mark (as shown in the picture above). You want the cabin supply temperature to come off the bottom peg (lest you freeze the passengers out before decreasing the overall cabin temp to comfortable levels); I've found an initial supply temp of 50-60ºF works well. As the cabin temp comes down to the desired level (I shoot for 68° or so), I adjust the temp knob slightly higher into auto range - usually right around the reference mark - where ideally the system will modulate the supply valve to maintain a comfortable temp on its own (80-90° supply temp works well). Any further adjustments to the temperature knob are best made slowly and in small increments, lest you drive the valve full hot or cold. I've found that in about 75% of the fleet, you'll end up turning the cabin temp selector slightly lower over the course of the flight, and the cockpit temp selector slightly higher.

Sometimes AUTO mode just isn't working no matter what you do, and then we turn the affected temp selector knob to the six-o'clock position, which puts the respective pack in manual mode. At this point you are directly driving the supply valve with momentary selections hotter or colder; however, output temperature can still vary depending on engine power / bleed output, and more than one pilot has left a pack in MANUAL mode, didn't pay attention when the throttles came back on descent, and was surprised to find that the output temperature was driven so high that it tripped the pack offline altogether. The preferred technique if MANUAL mode is needed is to get the supply valve where you want it, let output temp stabilize for a minute or two, and then switch back to AUTO mode and see if it does a better job of maintaining supply valve position.

On descent, depending on destination OAT, you'll typically once again turn both knobs to the 9 o'clock position in an attempt to cold-soak the cabin before arrival - as temps are nearly guaranteed to rise on taxi-in. If it's very warm at all, I start the APU immediately after landing and open the crossbleed valves so it can assist with airflow. We normally shut down the #2 engine three minutes after landing for fuel savings, but with OAT over 85ºF we occasionally keep both engines running to the gate (especially in an airplane that has trouble keeping up on a single idling engine + APU). Once both engines are shut down at the gate, the cabin temperature is almost guaranteed to climb on APU alone; it's basically a question of how quickly you can get the warm bodies to exit the airplane! Nearly all of our gates have large and capable air conditioning machines with supply hoses, and the better rampers get these hooked up and running very quickly. In warm weather they almost always do. The problem is that in 60º-70º weather they often don't realize that this conditioned air is still very necessary on the Mad Dog. The proactive pilot will go outside and make sure they still hook up the air. Once this is complete, you can save fuel by shutting down the APU in all but the hottest temperatures.

This all applies to the normal Mad Dog. On the Big Dog, which makes up about 30% of our fleet, the controls are the same but the actual system components are different and require a different technique. The good news is that the APU is bigger and has more bleed output, and is often able to maintain a comfortable cabin temperature on the ground all on its own or with a single engine running. The bad news is that the system is far more aggressive and volatile in AUTO mode. It will run the supply valves from full cold to full hot with a tiny movement of the temperature selector knob, or sometimes all on its own. The initial after takoff setting of the knobs requires particularly close attention for the first several minutes, meaning that at a fairly busy time I'm looking up at the overhead panel every 30 seconds or so. It's far more common to have to run for a while in manual mode on the Big Dog.

This all sounds fairly labor intensive, and it is when you're new to the system, but once you're acquainted with its quirks it becomes second nature, much like the rest of the Mad Dog. I have a feeling that once I go to the 757/767 I'm going to initially be a little restless, feeling like I ought to be doing far more than I am. I'm sure I'll get used to the reduced workload, though - not to mention skating through summer as cool as a cucumber!

Monday, May 18, 2015

In Search of Sunshine Part IV: Cruising the Abacos

After departing Staniel Cay on the morning of March 31st, the six of us in my Piper Pacer and our rented Piper Warrior headed northeast to the island of Eleuthera, site of the Bahamas' oldest settlement (in 1646, by Pilgrims expelled from Bermuda). Ours was a short visit: we flew low up the island's rocky eastern coast, checked out the impressive reef just offshore, buzzed the quaint colonial houses of Harbour Island, and landed at the nearby North Eleuthera Airport for a closer look. I'll confess that I found Harbour Island's pink sand beach a bit overhyped: it's essentially just a really nice white sand beach with a slight pinkish hue. But we enjoyed lounging on it for a bit, and I liked the island's 18th-century architecture bedecked in bright Bahamian pastels.


After lunch, we hightailed it out to the airport and took off for our destination for the afternoon, and the next four days: Abaco. It was another quick bluewater crossing in loose formation at 3500 feet, then we dropped low and tightened up as we approached Little Harbour, an eastern promontory of Great Abaco Island. From there we flew up the chain of cays on the eastern side of the Sea of Abaco; the beautiful, shallow waters and myriad islets made an excellent photographic background that kept Steve busily snapping away from his temporary perch in the Warrior (Jacquie rode in the Pacer for this leg).

After landing in Marsh Harbour and tying down the planes securely, we took a taxi into town to the Conch Inn & Marina, which doubles as the base for The Moorings boat charter company. We checked in and got a thorough cruising area & chart briefing, then boarded our home for the next few days. Tack-A-Cardia is a Moorings 4600 (Leopard 46) sailing catamaran with four double cabins and two singles, plus a large saloon & galley and generous communal areas abovedecks. We'd need all that space, for we were joined by five new friends for this portion of the adventure. Andy and Ivy are fellow airline pilots and dear friends of mine who've been on several Interline Regattas and other sailing trips with me. Jeff, Sarah, and Hailey were Steve's Californian friends who I'd never met before. The first night we stayed on the dock unpacking and provisioning, enjoying a delicious dinner of jerk chicken grilled on the stern barbeque, and talking and laughing around the deck table late into the night.


The next morning we got underway at a reasonable hour, and were rewarded with a nice shore breeze as soon as we left Marsh Harbor despite a forecast of calm winds for the next several days. It built steadily as we tacked northward until we were close-reaching at an impressive eight knots. It only took a bit over two hours to reach Treasure Cay, where we winded our way through the narrow, shallow harbor entrance. The reward, after we anchored and ate lunch, was a visit to the most incredibly beautiful beach I've ever seen, a shock to the senses with the purest white sand and electric blue water straight out of a Bombay Sapphire bottle. We lingered long enough that we ended up skipping the reef we were planning to snorkel at and proceeded straight to our anchorage for the night, Fischer's Bay on Great Guana Island. We swam a bit after anchoring, piled into the dinghy (no small feat with 11 people!) to watch the sunset among cruisers at Grabbers Bar, then walked across the island for dinner at the famous/infamous Nipper's Bar.


 Thursday morning, the forecast for calm winds proved woefully correct, and we motored out from Fischer's Bay and several miles southward to Fowl Cay Marine Park. This took us slightly outside the Sea of Abaco, between Fowl Cay and a very large barrier reef. We anchored in sand and took the dinghy to a mooring ball closer to the reef, and spent several hours snorkeling. That afternoon, as we steamed further south to Elbow Cay, we were transiting an area about a half-mile east of a cut to the open ocean when I noticed that the water ahead looked shallow. Mind you, it's shallow everywhere in the Sea of Abaco, it's something you just get used to. Anyways, the chartplotter as well as my newly-published cruising guide showed 7-9 feet of depth in the surrounding area. Should have listened to my gut - we plowed into a 3' sandbar doing six knots under power. Apparently, a storm had recently shifted the sand inland from the cut. It wasn't a big deal - we had everyone jump into the waist-high water and I was able to back the boat off the sandbar with no damage to the keels. Had I been only 100 feet west, the water was much deeper.

We spent the afternoon and night at Tahiti Beach on the south end of Elbow Cay. A few of us took the dinghy to explore the nearby Tilloo Cut and adjacent shallow waters, and others in our group went hiking on Elbow Cay. They unknowingly wandered onto private property, but the owner was nice about it and invited us all to a party that night at the marina she and her husband own. It was a long dinghy ride there at sunset - and even longer returning in the dark!

On Friday we got underway shortly after 8am to transit the very shallow Lubbers Quarters Channel just before high tide, and the early start plus lovely 20-knot winds meant we were able to sail further south than originally planned, all the way down to Little Harbour. This rocky outpost on the Abaco mainland was originally settled by Canadian artist Randolph Johnson and his family, who initially lived in a cave; it grew into something of an artists' commune, and today the centerpiece of the little settlement is Pete's Pub, also a metalworks foundry and gallery owned by Randolph's son. Unfortunately a falling tide and a very shallow harbor entrance meant we couldn't stay for too long.

It was a long sail northward that afternoon, with an enroute stop at Sandy Cay, so it was after 5pm when we entered Hope Town Harbour. Hope Town is a beautiful, quaint colonial village founded by loyalists from the southern United States after the Revolutionary War. We climbed its iconic candy-striped lighthouse to watch the sunset, then dinghied across the harbour to explore the town and have dinner and drinks at the waterside Captain Jack's.


April 4th was our last day in the Bahamas. We woke early, made breakfast, and cleaned the boat while steaming back to Marsh Harbour. After returning the boat, we said goodbye to our old and new friends who were flying out via airlines the next day; the rest of us headed back to the airport's GA terminal. It took a while to file our flight plans, notify U.S. customs, clear Bahamian customs, and pay for our fuel and parking, but we were taxiing out by 11:15am. The Marsh Harbour airport was notably busy on this Saturday morning, but we were able to sneak out between arrivals and formed up for our flight up the Abaco chain all the way out to Walker Cay. Initially this took us over the northern Sea of Abaco where we'd sailed on Wednesday, including Treasure Cay; the beach didn't look quite as amazing from the air. The rest of the Abacos were quite nice, and I noticed a few airstrips on isolated cays. Over Walker Cay we called Miami Radio and got our transponder codes for transiting the ADIZ, and a bit later got VFR flight following with Miami Center. Two hours after takeoff we landed in Fort Pierce, cleared customs, returned our life rafts at the FBO, and hopped over to Sebastian to return the Warrior. Kevin and Jeannie were driving back to Atlanta from Sebastian, and they gave Jacquie and Dawn a ride to the Orlando airport.

Steve and I continued on with the Pacer, stopping in Sebring to visit an airline friend and then at Tampa for the night. On Sunday we flew to Clarksville TN, where we spent the night with my good friends Sylv & Hugh, and on Monday we landed at Flying Cloud Airport in the early afternoon. Incredibly, we had a tailwind the entire way home - it only took 10.3 hours from Tampa to Minneapolis. All told, I'd put 33 hours on the Pacer since leaving FCM the month prior, and she performed splendidly without missing a beat. It was a fantastic first adventure with my airplane, and all the better that I shared it with Dawn, Steve, and a literal boatload of friends. I'll be taking the plane to Oshkosh in July and Montana/Idaho in September; next spring break I'm thinking Baja, and then Alaska awaits! It's not exactly cheap owning an airplane - but it sure is fun!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

In Search of Sunshine, Part III: Flying the Bahamas

Never having flown a small plane to a foreign country or across a long stretch of open water, I expected the flying portion of our flying/sailing trip to be a challenge. I'm not sure what I expected - paperwork hassles, mostly, and ATC communications difficulties, maybe some substandard airports, perhaps even unscheduled maintenance in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the flying turned out to be a breeze. Bahamian officials were welcoming and helpful, flying procedures were easy, communication was straightforward once we left U.S. airspace (!), and the airports were all lovely, if a bit busy at times. My Pacer and our rented Piper Warrior didn't so much as hiccup for the nine hours. Everyone in our group - me, Dawn, my brother Steve, his friend Jacquie, my friend & erstwhile sim partner Kevin, and his wife Jeannie - really enjoyed our time flying through the islands.

In fact the hardest part turned out to be getting Dawn down to Florida in the first place. Kevin and Jeannie drove from Atlanta, Steve and Jacquie used buddy passes several days in advance, and I was able to jumpseat - but Dawn found herself trying to non-rev out of Minneapolis on the first day of spring break for many Minnesotan kids. We came within one seat of getting out several times on Friday, were left at the gate that night with 32 seats open to Grand Rapids due to a gate agent's incompetence, and the next day found ourselves far down several standby lists of over 100 nonrevs. I finally took the jumpseat through Atlanta, arriving in Melbourne in the early afternoon. Dawn went home and instead flew directly to Nassau the next day. Thus, she missed the first day of our adventure - but was rewarded with a fairly memorable arrival.

We took off from Sebastian only two hours after I landed at Melbourne; my non-rev hassles meant a fairly hasty departure, which added considerably to my stress level. I refiled my eAPIS manifest with U.S. Customs & Border Patrol to reflect Dawn's absence from the Pacer, got a weather briefing from FSS, and filed international flight plans for both the Pacer and Warrior. There was a TFR out for President Obama's visit/golfing vacation to Fort Pierce; Sebastian was just outside the 30 mile ring, and by flying due east for 20 miles before turning towards Freeport we would remain clear. When ready to launch, I called FSS to open our flight plans, only to be told Sebastian was within the TFR boundaries (it actually wasn't active until the President's departure the next day; there was a steady stream of airplanes clearly not "squawking and talking") and put on an apparently indefinite hold for a squawk code. After 15 minutes I lost patience, decided we'd open in the air, and hung up. After takeoff, though, neither I in the Pacer nor Kevin in Warrior 27K could raise Miami Radio on any of the published frequencies! An active flight plan is an absolute must for crossing an active ADIZ, but because of the TFR, we couldn't turn south to delay crossing the ADIZ. I slowed down and called Miami Center, who said they couldn't open the flight plan but gave me an alternate frequency to contact Miami Radio. Thankfully this one worked, and just in time to enter the ADIZ.

By the time I had it all sorted out, we were nearly halfway to Freeport, pushed along by a 25 knot tailwind on the tail end of a cold front. We landed at 5:05PM, officially five minutes after customs closes. They cheerfully waited for us, but charged us a $50/airplane late fee in addition to the usual $50 cruising permit free. We spent the night at the cheap-but-cheerful Bell Channel Inn, walking to the Port Lucaya Marketplace for dinner and sneaking onto the Grand Lucayan's palatial grounds to access the beach. The next morning we departed Freeport early for the 60 mile crossing to the Berry Islands, where we overflew several cruise ships at Great and Little Stirrup Cays before cruising down miles of beautiful deserted beach at Great Harbour Cay. We landed here and took a short cab ride to Carriearl Boutique Hotel for their famous Sunday Brunch.

After brunch, we took off again for some low altitude air-to-air photography down the Berries before climbing for the 40-mile crossing to New Providence Island - better known by the name of its bustling city, Nassau. Here we had decided to split up; Steve and I would stop at the busy Lynden Pindling International Airport to pick up Dawn while the other three continued on in the Warrior to Norman's Cay, at the north end of the Exumas, for some beach time. This worked well as Nassau was extremely busy on this Sunday afternoon; it would have been much more stressful if I hadn't been here several times with the Mad Dog. We landed right after the Airbus from Minneapolis on which Dawn was sitting in First Class, sipping mimosas; upon exiting customs, she was met by her personal pilot and whisked off to her private airplane!


Thirty minutes later we were climbing southeastbound for the 44nm crossing to Norman's Cay, once the private lair of an infamous international drug kingpin. I was relieved to see Warrior 27K sitting safely on the ramp; I buzzed the beach to alert our friends to our arrival, circled over the visible wreckage of a DC-3 in the shallow lagoon, and landed for a few minutes to bask in the warm sunshine. Then we took off together and flew formation for 32 stunning miles of the Exuma Islands chain: the turquoise of the Grand Bahama Bank to the west, bleached cays and scrub-covered islets, shallow lagoons, narrow cuts, pristine reefs, empty sugar-sand beaches, and the deep dark blue of the Atlantic to the east. Staniel Cay came into view, and we entered the right downwind for Runway 35. The wind was blowing stink out of the northeast (as it had been all day), making for a rough ride down final and a last-minute sinker that resulted in a bad bounce and go-around. The second attempt was more successful and we shut down at the southernmost point of our adventure - over 1500nm from my Pacer's home base of Flying Cloud Airport.


We stayed two nights on Staniel Cay, renting a brand-new 3BR villa at the still-unfinished Embrace Resort steps away from the airport. The island is very small and remote, though it is the most developed settlement between Georgetown and Nassau. There are a few stores with limited hours and stock and quite expensive prices, making us wish we'd done more provisioning in Freeport (you can bring some provisions in from the U.S., and we did, but fresh fruits & veggies must be acquired locally). The famous Staniel Cay Yacht Club, with its large coterie of resident nurse sharks and stingrays, is a pleasant 10-minute walk from the villa. Overall, though, there's not a ton to do on Staniel Cay; like most of the Bahamas, the main action is on the water, making a boat a near-necessity. To this end we rented a 17' Boston Whaler to explore the beautiful, shallow surrounding waters on our "lay day." The nearly-mandatory first stop was Big Major's Spot, home to the infamous swimming pigs. Legend has it that passing sailors deposited a couple of porkers on the uninhabited islet about 40 years ago, intending to return for a feast that never materialized. Instead the pigs went feral, multiplied, learned to swim, and rooted out a lucrative niche hamming it up for tourists and cruisers in exchange for food scraps. Indeed, we weren't even to the beach when several large sows and boars boldly swam up, hoisting their torsos onto the gunwhales as they noisily begged for leftovers! They turned out to be very friendly pigs, and we spent a pleasant hour on their beach.

After that we explored a few small sandy cays with gorgeous beaches, and then powered on over to Thunderball Grotto, made famous by the James Bond movie of the same name. This is an island with a large sea-cave hidden inside; you access it by swimming through a low entrance, hidden at high tide, or jumping through a hole in the roof into water 25 feet below. It's a nice spot for snorkeling with a plethora of small fish at the entrances, and we had a lot of fun filming our jumps into the dark cave. By now it was 1pm so we had lunch in the boat, stopped at SCYC to stock up on (expensive!) cold Kalik beers, and motored a few miles south to Bitter Guana Cay to spend the afternoon exploring and checking out the endangered Exuma Island Iguanas. As the shadows got longer we returned the Boston Whaler and walked down to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club for conch fritters and sundowners. I wouldn't have minded another night or two at Staniel Cay to better explore the Exumas, but the next day we'd be flying north to start the next phase of our adventures aloft and afloat.