Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bax on Intimidating FBOs

We often talk on the podcast about the sad state of FBO marketing. About how intimidating it is to walk into your average flight operation.

Rereading one of my all-time favorite aviation writers, Gordon "Bax" Baxter, in his book "How to Fly". Bax wrote this back in 1980.

The FBO does not think of himself as an "airplane store". He usually does not advertise, promote, or even leap up and greet you at the door with a "May I help you?" He thinks of himself first as an aviator. A pilot, who is just doing all this charter flying, airplane renting and student instruction to keep him and his true love, the airplane, together at night.

He still sees himself somewhat as we first saw him when he stood up in the cockpit of that biplane and raised his goggles and grinned down at us. The message was, "If you boys are really worthy, I will let you enter into all this with me."

Although the cost is much the same, walking into the airplane store to buy flying lessons is not going to be very much like walking into the car store to buy a new Cadillac. Aside from the indifference, there is outright snobbery of the kind that smites any "new boy" at the golf pro shop or at the sailing marina. As in any other form of clubhouse snobbery the atmosphere is greatly improved if an old member of this club brings you out as a personal friend and handshakes you all around.

A thaw will begin as soon as they see that you are serious about wanting to learn how to fly. You will become a full member of this club as soon as you come in, shaking your head and laughing, from your first hour of instruction. They will be laughing with you, not at you, and you will soon sense that there is a comradely protection extended toward the student from the entire aviation community. Everything that you do as a beginner happened to us, too, and the memory stays scented green forever.

"How to Fly" by Gordon Baxter, 1981, Summit Books.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wx Forecast: Winter Wonder Skies

What a sobering sight with so much Fall left to use: Snow...snow in Pittsburgh Sunday during the Steelers game; snow falling Monday and Tuesday -- and in the northern part of my native state, Indiana...

Guess my instinct comes down to, "Don't suspected this was coming..." Well, yeah -- we've had our suspicions...for weeks.

For weeks, the neighborhood squirrels have been packing away acorns and walnuts like shoppers grabbing deals at a Going Out of Business sale. Migratory birds filled the park next door, gorging themselves on seeds and berries -- a collection that delighted the resident daylight predators, a Cooper's Hawk and a Broadwinged Hawk...their hunting has been great. And overhead, the southbound retreat of Canada Geese, ducks and other waterfowl at times resembled the Eighth Air Force assaults on Germany during World War II. With flight after flight, in long wedged-shaped patterns, stretching back to the north, these endless waves of long-distance travelers often resembled the lines of airliners stretching out from DFW, when the bursts of strobes and flashes of beacons illuminated the aerial highway through dusk and well into the dark.

Combined, the urgent actions of squirrels and birds seem to hint at a whopper of a Winter ahead -- possibly one as snow-storm intense as the last, when waves of storms taxed road and runway crews alike, tapped salt supplies to near exhaustion, and gave even well-equipped, seasoned and experienced aviators purposeful pauses in the flying plans.

This is the time of year when pre-flight inspections often require us to unwillingly abandon gloves to handle cold-soaked metal, try to coax from their reluctant reels the temperature-stiffened air hoses we need to replenish our tires; when we resurrect in our vocabulary undesirable words like "pre-heat," "known" and "forecast icing," and when we become aware that "braking conditions good" isn't merely an adjective for a China shop. Not when those conditions can so often be the opposite.

But these harsh Winter conditions always -- remember, always -- give way to more hospitable conditions.

And there are some major appeals to flying after Winter storms pass. Usually, we get the kind of winds that east-bound pilots dream of, that they dread later, when west-bound. So there's a 50 percent benefit potential right there.

The airplanes themselves, when warmed and coaxed to life with proper TLC, in fact love Winter conditions; engines perform better, climb rates improve -- heck, you can see density altitudes actually well below field elevation. What's not to like about that?

But the greatest appeal for me is the view from aloft, post-snow-storm.

Above, the sky never appears bluer or cleaner than on the backside of a Winter front. It's a blue so bright and clear that it blatantly begs to be cruised.

And when we accept that invitation into the Winter Blue, we are treated to a view below unavailable from a naked Earth. Below us, the Winter landscape takes on a snowy softness, with rounded features and diaphanous shadows in the early and late hours of the day. The wind often sculpts the snow around, over and behind objects as diverse as rolls of bailed hay -- watch for the wedge-shaped shadows on the leaward side of those huge wheels -- fences, treelines, buildings and roads.

Snow-cloaked mountains and hills may shield their contours -- but they never better show off their leafless trees and rock faces. And mountains take on an altogether different look when powder coated in white.

And there can be as much to see on a night flight as during the day. A moonless Winter night reveals a sky so black that it sucks light like a sponge, reflecting nothing -- but revealing the leaking light of billions of celestial bodies with such clarity that you feel tempted to climb forever just to see them more closely.

But it's the Moon-lit nights that appeal most to me. Cruising in a darkened sky, that otherwise cold-hearted orb rules the night landscape, reflecting its silver light to our sight with details that twinkle back a quick wave, a flash of light that's gone in an instant -- but repeated with our passage over every river and pond and lake. Moon lights the snow-sheathed landscape which shimmers with the sheen of our natural satellite, with shadows softly sculpted that undulate with the rise and fall of Terra.

The darker the cockpit, the more our eyes reveal; the more our eyes reveal, the more entrancing and enchanting the whole experience -- and the less willing we may be to end the experience.

While numb fingers, chilled ears and chapped noses may be a painful price to pay for the proscribed pre-flight proceeding Winter flight, only Winter flight itself can balance that discomfort with a scenic feast that can live on in our minds long after the chill has gone.

Be smart; be careful; most of all, be prepared. Don't fear the Winter. What you stand to gain is a reward unparalleled. Personally, I'm looking forward to an open runway surrounded by snow for just that reason.

-- Dave Higdon

Sunday, November 16, 2008

List of Airport Restaurants

I've started a new section in the wiki. A list of airport restaurants. I've put a few in there to get it started, but let's see what we can do here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

You Might Be A Pilot If...

Steven "Airspeed" Force has collected a list called "You Might Be A Pilot If..."

For example:

"You read back your fast food order at the drive-through and end it with your license plate number."

There's lots more. Check it out.

FOLLOWUP: Many people have added new entries to the comments section of Steve's post. My favorite is from our own Dave H:

"...when you're on a rough road and call the State Police road-condition hotline and ask for higher..."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Day For the Vets...

You could barely tell that Veteran's Day approached, looking at the Sunday newspaper. Just the usual pitches for big discounts at businesses who noticed the unfortunately timed Tuesday date for the day set aside to honor those who've stood for their country, their state, town, but mostly for their loved ones -- the families left behind.

It's always a little bit dyslexic, this holiday. As worthy and important as Memorial Day, as significant as any President's Birthday, Veteran's Day escaped the long-ago rush to align some holidays with weekends, thus creating a long-weekend opportunity to the benefit of families and businesses, alike. But partly because Veteran's Day continues to fall on its original date, it suffers a little from a disconnection that does not afflict Memorial and Labor day holidays -- the two that now perpetually fall on a Monday.

But from the list of low key commemorations around the nation, it's clear that Veteran's Day does not suffer from a disconnect with large numbers of people. They remember. We remember.

We always should.

Veterans, of course, whether personally subjected to a moment of recognition, still stop and think about their time, their friends alive and lost, and their good fortune at surviving their personal time in the military.

My military stint kept me far from direct conflict and largely out of harm's way. But not so for many of my childhood friends, neighborhood mates whose names now serve part of the collective memory of Vietnam commemorated on those sobering black-granite walls in Washington, D.C. They come to mind often. They remain forever my young buddies.

But the people who come to mind most often are the ones of my father's generation -- The Greatest Generation, as coined by author and journalist Tom Brokaw.

Growing up, my neighborhood friends and I were regularly glued to the tube to watch the show "Combat" or "12 O'Clock High" and we regularly filled front-row seats at the LeRose Theater in my hometown where, around Veteran's Day each year, we could count on a heavy dose of movies like "12 O'Clock High" or "The Longest Day" and "Sands of Iwo Jima, " or one of my favorites of the day, "The Flying Tigers."

Not until years later did we grow beyond our youthful fascination with global war as seen through the eyes of Hollywood and come to see the reality, either through our own eyes or the eyes of our fathers, uncles, grandparents -- the men and women who fought and survived with scars both visible and invisible to the human eye.

Thoughts of my father, wading shore from a Higgins Boat on beaches in Africa, then Sicily, Italy and, ultimately, Normandy, always flit through my mind when watching modern retellings of these horror. Whether through films like "Saving Private Ryan" or the masterpiece series "Band of Brothers," the inglorious horror and savagery that comes through those works gives me shivers of fear. And I can see bits of my father in the eyes of many of the actors portraying real soldiers in a real war.

The movie "Midnight Clear" and "The Battle of the Bulge," and the "Brothers" segment on Bastogne collectively helped me understand my father's long-time distaste for snowy days and chilling cold. But it was "Band of Brothers" that sealed it. While my buds and brothers reveled in the chilled powder sledding behind our house, my father involuntarily flashed back to December 1944 when he served under Gen. George Patton and helped the Airborne liberate themselves from Bastogne. The cold cut through the underclothed relief troops just as it did the Airborne soldiers.

Less than a month after entering Bastogne and finally into Germany, a Nazi mortar shell ended my father's war. By the time we was recovered enough to return to his unit, the war was over.

The segments in the 1949 movie "12 O'Clock High" that portray Gregory Peck's character, Gen. Savage, has come to represent my paternal uncle, Phil. He learned to fly before the war through the Civilian Pilot Training Corps and was called to fly to bombers in 1941. He arrived in England in 1942 and flew B-17s on long, dangerous, palm-sweating missions deep into Germany and back again to England. He lasted 17 missions -- better than many -- before the wicked toll of Germany 88s and Me109s forced him and only two other survivors of his crew to bail out over occupied France. Safe on French soil, he made contact with the Underground and was about to get smuggled out of the country when the Gestapo changed his plans.

He lived out the war in a Luftstalag-- better than many -- and served as the inspiration for my father's decision to transfer to a unit going ashore on D Day. The younger brother determined to find and liberate the older. Of course, that didn't happen; war has a way with dictating its own terms.

Unlike many vets of the air war, my Uncle Phil continued to fly as a civilian and, fortunately for me, gave me that first airplane ride that spurred me to fly.

Others also come to mind. My friend Chauncey, now in his 80s, was a 22-year-old Captain in the Army Air Corps, flying B-29s in the Pacific Theater; he survived to view Japan's surrender from the right seat of his bomber, "Goin' Jessie!" My uncle, who was the gunner in a Navy TBM, survived a shoot-down and a splash; later, he loved to fish but hated to swim. A couple of other friends who survived flying P-47s in Europe and Corsairs in the Pacific continued to fly -- but they wear their status unwillingly. My late neighbor, Emeline, who nursed the wounded with shells falling around her in the Phillipines.

Not "heroes" in their minds, like my father and uncles and other friends, they were called or volunteered to do what had to be done -- nothing more, nothing less.

Most of us can rest easy tonight because of people like these; most of us -- and our families -- can go through life with little worry about the need to face down a rifle-toting soldier or an aggressive fighter pilot.

Most of us -- even those of us who served in the far flung fields of fighting in Southeast Asia, in Korea, even in the Middle East theaters of Afghanistan and Iraq -- can feel fortunate that we''ll never have to fight in a war that engulfs an entire world.

Most of us are here because of those scared, scarred, stoic and step-up men and women who served and died and lived through World War I or II.

This day actually started as Armistice Day -- commemorating the day Germany surrendered in a rail car in France, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

But by whatever name we call it, it's still The Day to remember the sacrifices of ourselves and our forefathers.

The freedom we enjoy to fly unbound across this great nation exists only because of them.

Eleven passed shortly ago, but not without my own silent salute to all Veterans, past, present and future: Here here, to us, to them.

-- Dave

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Flying Into Fall...

Cross-country flying offers so many vistas to enjoy, regardless of whether you're screaming along in the low five-digit altitudes or cruising lazily and low at a relative crawl. The passing of night into dawn and, eventually, full daylight; the reverse process with its scenes of lengthening shadows and encroaching dark while the sky itself turns in a spectral performance of changing shades of fading colors until the denizens of the darkest skies punctuate the black fabric with their flickering pinpricks of light.

Watching towboats edge dozens of barges upriver against the ceaseless Mississippi current, the bumper-to-bumper tail-and-head lighting of traffic stretching out for miles in two directions, the changing texture of landscape from plains and prairies to urban islands and on to the undulations of the mountains seams that stitch together disparate pieces of Earth or the marshes of coastal lowlands that sparkle and shine between their patches of ever-wet green.

While worthwhile high-sky watching at any time of year, Fall in particular seems to populate some of those memories strongest in the old cranial logbooks of past flights.

No particular reason jumps out for this tilt; but the distinctive nature of the season seems most likely the cause.

Memories of silently slicing the sky scant feet above a mountain overflowing with the browns, reds and golds of the seasonal change; the air wafts at all altitudes with the distinctive scent of the season -- a pungent, pleasant aroma of leaves passing from their glorious Spring green to the dried-and-brittle finality of their brief lives.

The mental images of cruising a few thousand feet up purposefully proceeding and, in a few short hours, overflying a landscape glowing with the bright greens of lush life, transiting to the territories topped with the reds, golds and yellows of trees in the full thrall of fall, before passing over dark-green-t0-blue swaths of evergreens standing closer to the aircraft, and finally arriving at latitudes where Nature passed southbound days earlier, leaving behind bare and stark the upturned branches of the forest below. At some times of day, those trees almost seem to reach up toward the airplane and wave a plaintive greeting and a pained request to not look to closely at their naked state.

Thankfully for the trees, they always bloom green again. Thankfully, this seasonal transition lasts only long enough to experience fully before lamenting its pass.

Thankfully, that Fall experience comes around every year, varying each time in intensity and duration.

Regardless of the depth and breadth of the Fall flying experience, those hours spent watching the world pass below are never wasted time when the views produce the proper proteins for later replay. And those memories are always s important to retain.

Think of the loss if a soul were to never again go aloft and those mental replays were to fail. Lost forever would be the warmth and joy of those moments. Along the way, a little of ourself would be lost, as well.

Thankfully, those privileged to taste the high life of flight need not worry that it fades -- it never goes away as long as those tapes can keep playing. And as long as someone can help us into the cockpit, we can always enjoy a little refresh run, even if we're not the ones still moving the controls.

Fall is back. Enjoy it before it's gone until next year.

-- Dave Higdon