AVweb AVFlash - FRIDAY FEATURES
Volume 20, Number 24c

December 19, 2013

Embracing Risk

It's often difficult to compare the risks imposed by different activities, but it’s reasonable to state flying a certified single-engine airplane for an hour on a severe-clear day isn’t as risky as spending that same time performing low-level aerobatics in an Experimental airplane. At the same time, and according to John King of King Schools, “you’re more likely to have a fatality in a GA airplane than in a car” when traveling the same distance. If the added risk exposure we get from flying didn’t provide some benefit—more efficient transportation, for example, or pure enjoyment—we might not do it at all. But the simple enjoyment of boring holes in the sky and other benefits outweighs that risk for many of us.

The risk-versus-reward calculation is a major factor affecting our risk tolerance. The greater the reward, the more risk we are willing to tolerate. Admitting that aviating adds risks is the first step toward better management of them, and your own set should start with a planning process informed by this doom-and-gloom perspective. I know it’s a buzz-kill, but each flight has the potential for something to go wrong, including a unique profile of possible contributing factors. One question to ask yourself is what the NTSB report might contain. Such a perspective can be a good way to hold in check the runaway set of events that might lead to a bad outcome.

Risk Tolerance

Risk tolerance can be thought of as our personal threshold of what we’re willing to subject ourselves to, usually in exchange for some benefit. Humans all have differing degrees of risk tolerance: Sky divers, mountaineers, hang gliders and people who pursue adventure sports skew to the more risk-tolerant side of the curve. Agoraphobics and people who absolutely will not fly reside on the other side.

As aviators, we typically have demonstrated greater risk tolerance than our non-aviating friends, particularly those who are less than enthusiastic about getting in a plane with us. Flying, however, can trigger risk aversion in people who are otherwise risk-tolerant. My old climbing partner, Tim, was willing to bivouac with me in the mountains at 14,000 feet in the winter and canoe the Grand Canyon in a boat we salvaged off a bridge. Yet he was hesitant to do one lap in the pattern with me. Perhaps he knows me too well, but his perspective on the risk of flying was different than his assessment of other risks he routinely accepted.

Every aviator has a different threshold of comfort driven by experience, training and our own individual aviation-risk sensibilities. An example is a YouTube video, at http://bit.ly/Pfww, of a pilot landing a Piper Super Cub on a rocky outcrop on the shoulder of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. He skillfully lands in a few hundred feet or less and, after a pause in the video (where I suspect he recycled some coffee), he fires up and departs in even less distance.

Some would say it was an example of a well-calculated risk; others would say it was pushing the envelope too far. Predictably, comments on the video fell into three basic camps: “attaboys,” “great for him, not for me” and “there are bold pilots and there are old pilots.”

The point is we each have our own views of risk and willingness to accept risk for ourselves. Having others on board, however, changes our risk tolerance, or at least it should.

Expanding the Envelope

I take exception to the oft-quoted bromide that there are no old, bold pilots. If that were entirely true, there would be no pilots at all. Sure; it applies to the hold-my-beer-and-watch-this knuckleheads, but in my experience those outliers don’t dominate the aviation community. They exist, but I don’t think the NTSB reports reflect an outbreak of overly bold pilots becoming natural-selection events.

I would argue the opposite, that each of us individually made a series of bold moves to advance our skills. When you first soloed an aircraft, can you honestly say you didn’t have an elevated heart rate when you turned final? What about your first night landing? First excursion to a new airport? Becoming a pilot requires bold steps that advance you along your journey.

To continue advancing your skills, you must continue to be bold. While we all are encouraged to have personal minimums, I also think it is important to have a plan for methodically expanding them. We can use our own experience and training to expand the envelope, we can add ratings and we can go get recurrent training. By thoughtfully pushing our own limits, we become better pilots.

One of my favorite Will Rogers quotes is, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” Exploring the edges of our own risk envelope requires good judgment and—perhaps more important—good luck. The reason luck is a factor is that sometimes we learn the most when things go wrong. You can practice emergency maneuvers and emergency checklists all you want, but nothing clarifies that training like the real thing. Real life experience has been a much better teacher than most of my CFIs.

Some of my best training came from reflecting on my own experiences, including my own foolish mistakes. It also comes from reading about the mistakes of others in publications like Aviation Safety. In researching my recent article on whether more experienced pilots are safer (see “Safer By The Hour?” August 2013), one significant factor that improved pilot risk management performance was the commitment to ongoing training and continuous learning. Pilots who read safety articles, take courses and actively think about managing their risk tend to be safer than those who are disengaged.

While there is learning potential from surviving major screw-ups, you also have to be lucky. The Will Rogers quote is excellent, but he died in a plane crash with Wiley Post in 1935. You can only learn from mistakes you survive.

Owning Our Irrationality

While we usually think of ourselves as rational animals, we actually operate by intuition and emotion more than by facts and analysis, particularly when it comes to assessing and managing risk. For example, I don’t ride motorcycles as a hobby because I think they are too dangerous, yet at I consider the risk comparable to flying a single-engine airplane. That is irrational. Risk perception is irrational. Understanding that the way we view some risks is irrational may make us safer.

The reason I prefer the risk of flying to the risk of riding a motorcycle has to do with my perception of voluntary versus involuntary risk. In my view, the greatest risk of riding a motorcycle is from others running into me. I feel I have greater control over the dangers from flying. But if the risks of two activities are the same, I shouldn’t view one as more dangerous. I do, however, because that’s how it feels to me. We evaluate risk by feel more than by our command of actuarial data and cold calculation of probabilities.

There also is the issue of perceived benefit. I enjoy the experience of flying more than the experience of riding a motorcycle, so I get more pleasure for the same amount of perceived risk exposure. The greater the benefit, the more willing we are to accept greater risks. That is why, to me, flying seems less risky than riding a motorcycle.

The way we humans assess and manage risk is the subject of thousands of studies in fields ranging from psychology to economics. There are many reasons we diverge from logical thinking. One reason we make stupid risk-based decisions comes from a wide variety of cognitive biases, which tend to lead us to flawed heuristics. Heuristics are the experienced-based, knee-jerk mental shortcuts we use instead of actual rational thinking. One of the best ways to avoid these cognitive pitfalls is to know they exist, understand how they work and view them as the song of the sirens luring us onto the rocks. 

It is not entirely fair to simply say humans are totally irrational; the psychological theory of bounded rationality cuts us some slack. The bounded rationality concept recognizes that in decision making, our rationality is limited by the information we have, our own cognitive biases, our training and experience, and the finite amount of time we have to make a decision, especially when there are limitations on data gathering. In other words, we do the best we can with the information we have. Since we don’t have time to evaluate and rationally pick the very best optimal solution, we simplify our choices and go with one that is satisfactory rather than rationally optimal—this is called statisficing.

A good example of satisficing-bounded rationality might happen when your engine quits. The best place to land might be behind you. Rather than taking the time to do a 360-degree turn to scope out every possible field and analyze the optimal choice, we quickly limit our choices to those in our immediate field of view, perhaps processing wind direction, obstacles and other actors. The landing area we select may not be the absolute best choice, but the satisficing heuristic allows us to accept good enough. Even this rapid decision-making is subject to cognitive pitfalls. Cognitive anchoring, for example, may lead us to like our first option better than subsequent options.

Interpreting Facts

Our primary training emphasizes a fact-based view of risk management. We look at the hazards and sequentially attempt to mitigate or control them. Preflight planning is the first step that arms us with information we need to make informed rational choices. Knowing the simple facts like wind speeds, runway orientations, frequencies, distances, fuel supplies and burn rates, etc., helps us make better rational decisions.

Before each flight, we inspect aircraft systems to identify physical hazards that could affect safety of flight. Does the engine have oil? Is the air intake clear? Are the ailerons attached? By performing a systematic preflight, we can eliminate known causes of failure and are equipped to make better go/no-go decisions. Presumably a failure on the checklist requires a redo (e.g., add oil) or a no-go decision (wings are missing).

The preflight checklist can look like a simple binary decision-tree with nice simple answers. Enough oil? (yes or no). But it can get murky and subject to judgment very quickly. For example, does the gas have water or contamination in it? Here we begin seeing ambiguity, subject to our cognitive dysfunction.

So what do you do if you find water in your fuel? Do you keep sumping until it’s gone and continue as planned, or do you abort and schedule a visit with the mechanic? It depends. Do you know why? How much water? When and where was the aircraft last fueled? I would argue that the way you deal with facts and data from the preflight inspection and all of your preflight planning will be skewed by the myriad cognitive biases fighting to win your decision.

Perhaps you are subject to the optimist bias: “I’m sure I got the water out.” Perhaps you have confirmation or expectation bias: “I didn’t expect to find water, so the sample I am looking at is clearly avgas. I don’t need to take another sample.” Perhaps you will be persuaded by the normalcy bias: “I’ve never had a problem with water in the fuel before, so it is not likely a problem this time.”

I am not implying you need to ground the plane every time something is outside normal parameters. You do, however, need to step back and recognize your interpretations are skewed by one or more cognitive biases. Your failure to account for the cognitive bias in your interpretation of data may be what kills you as much as the water in the gas.

The Ultimate Checklist Item?

The most important item on my checklist is a two-part question I ask before committing to any flight: “What is it about this particular flight that is going to kill me, and have I been intellectually honest in evaluating and mitigating the risks?” Because every flight has its own risk profile, the answer is always different. Asking—and answering—this question is my last-chance, failsafe point for checking and rethinking any faulty heuristics and reevaluating my go/no-go decision.

One of my more recent flights involved a 500-foot takeoff roll on an 800-foot backcountry runway. I knew the numbers going in; I practiced a lot of takeoffs and landings to verify I had the performance I would need. I did not take a passenger. On the approach, I aborted the first landing attempt—not because I had a bad approach or was going to land long, but because I seriously was questioning my judgment to land at a place with such tight margins for my subsequent departure the next morning. By landing, I would be committing to the next day’s takeoff.

Because of my ultimate checklist item, I knew the most dangerous aspect of this particular flight was landing at an airstrip presenting conditions very near the limits of my skills and my aircraft’s takeoff performance. On the second landing attempt, I was so busy examining the clearance from trees needed for my departure route the next day that I made a less-than-stellar landing.

The next morning, during my takeoff roll, I fixated on getting the tail up to keep it from bouncing on the rocks (an example of the availability heuristic—I had broken a tailwheel earlier in the year), and I forgot to relax the pressure and allow the plane to accelerate more efficiently in the tail-low position, which resulted in a longer ground roll than I wanted. While the takeoff had the necessary margin to get off the runway and clear the trees, it was tighter than it needed to be.

I got a lesson I will never forget thanks to a bias acquired earlier in the year.

Recipes

Flying has its own particular set of risks, which is perhaps why I am drawn to it. Ongoing training and practice are the most important ingredients in my recipe for risk management, with dubiousness as a key ingredient. I always question the judgment of the person ultimately in charge of my decisions: me. I mix that with some critical self-evaluation, a dash of risk-taking and a pinch of good luck.

It’s said we can’t make our own good luck. Maybe not, but we can minimize the need for it by being aware of humans’ innate ability to rationalize away warnings against the outcomes we want. And if we don’t push the envelope’s edges once in a while, we won’t know where they are. Maybe there are old and bold pilots, after all.

Mike Hart is an Idaho-based commercial/IFR pilot with 1000 hours, and proud owner of a 1946 Piper J3 Cub and a Cessna 180. He also is the Idaho liaison to the Recreational Aviation Foundation.

 

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Aviation Safety Magazine.

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An Airplane Bearing Gifts

Ialways had enjoyed waking to find snow falling, although it had been a long time since I'd had the experience. Maybe this morning's snow was prophetic, as a white blanket was never guaranteed in these parts this time of year. It made me feel particularly good in spite of the fact it would take while to clean off the airplane before flying.

Looking out of the small opening in the sleeping bag I saw the conquest by snowflake was complete. Everything was covered to a depth of two or three inches. Another decision made for me. Right now I needed all of those I could get. I would put the skis on the airplane here and not have to worry about it later.

Okay, then, on with things. There isn't too much snow on the sleeping bag, the fuselage of the airplane protected me pretty well, all I'd have to do is shake it off and shove it into the stuff sack. Stashing it in the back of the baggage compartment means it won't get warm enough to melt the remaining snow anyway. The flannel shirt, wool sweater and cords I wore for sleeping will do just fine for the day's fashion wear; besides, I hadn't brought much — there isn't a lot of room in a Super Cub after you load the Christmas presents.

Cleaning up, a little breakfast and the call to check weather didn't take long. The sky was still pretty gray with the snow continuing to fall as I started the process of pulling the wheels off and installing skis. The airport operator stopped by to offer help. He, Newt, was a pleasant man. His wife had offered to let me stay in their house last night, and couldn't understand why I preferred to sleep under the airplane. I know Newt did. As they and I had talked I learned he shared my love for flying and the special feeling one gets just being around airplanes.

Now, as I jacked up a wheel, I sensed his presence. "Really going to try to go on to Michigan today?" he asked.

"Sure, the visibility is good even with the snow squalls, and they end before I get to Wisconsin. The weather guessers claim most of the north half of Iowa has snow coverage so it's time for the skis."

He looked over the airplane a bit before speaking again. "Where are you going to put the wheels?"

I explained, "I designed a rack on a stringer to hold them up out of the way so they can't get loose and cause trouble."

"What about weight and balance with those things that far aft?" he wondered aloud.

"I worked it out and there isn't enough weight to cause a problem."

He was persistent, "How'd you do that without drawings for the airplane structure, you an aeronautical engineer?"

"Yes. Even got an STC for it."

"Oh, sorry. Someday I'll learn not to pry. Can I help with that other side?" he asked, a bit chagrined.

"Sure, thank you. It should go on pretty easily. Once we get things loosened up the wheel slides off, the ski slides on, we tighten everything up and attach the bungee cords," I explained.

Together, we had it done in virtually no time at all. I put the equipment away and walked with Newt to the small airport office where I paid the bill for the fuel I had added last night.

As I turned to go he looked up with a thoughtful expression, "Remember what we talked about last night. They are going to be very glad to see you."

Up to that moment, I had been doing fine. Suddenly the waves of worry and uncertainty I had fought for so long flowed over me and all I could do was croak out a brief, "I hope so." Then, I turned and walked to the airplane. I knew it would help steady me, it always did.

I looked it over one more time. Everything was as it should be. Inside, I went through the comforting startup ritual. The little engine fired right away, even in the cold. Now I could submerge myself in the demands of taxiing on skis and flying the airplane. Maybe I could force myself to think of only those matters. The snow squeaked under the skis and the airplane moved in the odd, distinctive manner of skis on snow that I had nearly forgotten.

The takeoff was exhilarating: the cold, crisp air causing the airplane to accelerate rapidly, the sounds of the skis sliding across and through the new powder and the sensation I will always love, of again leaving the ground behind. Over to the side, Newt and his wife were standing beside the office, waving. I waggled the wings and turned on course through the lightly falling snow.

Time Travels

Looking over the gently rolling countryside that is Iowa, I discovered that the flight was not going to involve much work. The air was smooth, the snow light enough that it didn't hurt visibility much, the navigation simple, and the scenery absolutely lovely. Unfortunately, that gave me time to think. Would they let me come home? The engine seemed to mockingly repeat the question as it pulled me along. I thought back to the parting, now nearly five years ago.

They had given up and accepted the fact that I was hooked on airplanes and paid for me to go to college for an aeronautical engineering degree. That much had been relatively easy. Even the trips home where I was chided for going into an area not appropriate for me were not bad. They put up with me taking the year off to get my A&P rating. But then, after school was over, I was hired to fly airplanes for a living. They could not seem to understand why I would fly freight around, at odd hours, for lousy pay, in airplanes they considered so small as to be toys. It wasn't bad enough that they considered it not to be woman's work, but that it was also a waste of education was repeatedly thrown in my face. They did not understand that I had to follow the drives within me. The sky pulled me so hard at times I felt I didn't even need an airplane to fly. The end was not pleasant. There were harsh words on both sides and, at least for me, some very hard feelings. I had not been back since shortly after college.

Later, I met a man I thought understood my feelings. He, too, was drawn to flight. He and I moved south, and for several years lived as gypsies; flying at airshows, doing aerobatics in close formation, cutting ribbons held between poles a few feet off the ground and servicing our airplanes ourselves. As time went by, I began to realize that I was arranging for all the bookings, keeping track of the money, and more and more, doing his work on his airplane.

Our disagreements became more vehement; we even got to the point of arguing about money and, of all things, flying. I did not mind a laid-back lifestyle, but I had been well educated about the sky. I knew it could be as treacherous as it was inviting. It was unforgiving of errors and inattention to detail. I finally got to the point where I was screaming at him to try to get him to maintain his airplane. But he didn't seem to care. So, I tried to work on his as well as mine. That was a big mistake; I didn't have time to do anything well. I had nearly lost it at an airshow in Georgia when I was so tired I misjudged the pull-up at the end of an inverted pass in front of the crowd and flew through the top of a tree.

After that, I decided to leave. My old company wanted me back. It had expanded to the point it was operating large jets. The pay was pretty good. That was a shock. Suddenly I could make decent money doing what I loved. I did not want to pass it up.

When I broke it to him he did not take it well. He accused me of running out on him, of being unfaithful, of not carrying enough about us.

I was speechless at his response. I had cared for him for years, but in my desire to fly, above all else, I had never really seen him for what he was. He had never bothered to really learn about his airplane, nor had he bothered putting in his half of the effort to our flying.

It took a while for all that to sink in. So, I gave in, telling myself I would stay for a while. The summer was nearly over, and I would leave after the airshow schedule wound down. But, I quit doing his work for him. He had an A&P ticket, too. He was capable of taking care of his airplane. Besides, the constant high-performance flying had caused some serious wear on my engine and I had my hands full keeping it in shape for the last series of performances. I did ask him about his engine. He laughed and claimed I was just too rough on my airplane.

In late October, in a small town in Texas, we were in formation, just reaching the vertical in the pull-up to a loop on takeoff. We were flying the airplanes on sheer power, absolutely relying on our screaming engines. His crankshaft shattered. The investigators later said it was due to poor maintenance. All I saw was that his airplane rapidly dropped behind me. Without enough altitude or airspeed to establish a glide to a landing, he was effectively dead when the engine failed. I watched him try to get the nose down, to get control. The voice I heard screaming at him turned out to be mine. It didn't help; he needed another 200 feet of altitude.

And so I attended his funeral. I sold my airshow airplane but kept the Super Cub because I only knew I had to have some money and that, eventually, I would have to fly again. I was not ready for the guilt I laid on myself, nor for the nearly total inability to make a decision as to what to do with my life, or even what to do from moment to moment.

Back To The Future

The snow is letting up even more. The day has gotten brighter. I have always loved flying over this part of Iowa. The Mississippi River is near, the land is hilly, and the snow makes it look like a Currier and Ives print. How can there be strife or turmoil on an earth that is so beautiful? Is this why I fly, to escape the realities and difficulties of the ground? No, that cannot be, for there is a full set of intense difficulties and hazards up here. Yet, I relish this, perhaps because there is a definite edge here. It is very black and white, very clean. Here life is defined clearly.

The little field near LaCrosse lies ahead. I let down into the river valley and pick out the airport and the snow-covered, grass runway. Landing on snow can be quite a challenge. Usually it is a very sensuous way to end a flight. Sometimes, however, the snow cover just hides something waiting patiently to snatch the airplane and reduce it to expensive junk. But this is an airport, with a maintained runway, not a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere. I can concentrate on enjoying the landing while making sure I can still land on skis.

Touchdown is with the tail slightly low. The skis chatter over the snow that has been packed, evidently by a roller. To slow down, I simply allow the tailwheel to start rolling, for at idle power the airplane will eventually stop on its own. The skis track well, which pleases me, so there is no problem maneuvering in toward the gas pump. Since there are no brakes on skis, I judge my remaining speed and cut the engine while still a long ways short of the pumps. On the packed snow the airplane sighs to a stop just where I want it.

Something near elation surges through me. It is only a small flourish, but I still have it! I have not lost my touch; I can still sense the airplane and respond correctly. I haven't felt this good since before ... before he died.

What's this? I can think about it a little and it doesn't hurt quite so much.

A line boy appears by the wing tip. I open the door and ask him to top the tanks. He pulls a ladder over and begins to fuel the airplane. I note the fuel price is reasonable, then look the airplane over and check the oil. It isn't burning any. For an airplane several years older than I, it is in great shape. Probably better than I am, I think wryly.

The lineboy puts away the hose and says, "That'll be thirty-four-fifty for the fuel. Do you need any oil?"

"No, it's fine."

"Where you headed?" he asks as we walk to the building and I fish for my cash. "Home for the holidays?"

"Yeah, the Upper Peninsula."

He pauses, "I saw all the presents in the cabin. Should be quite a time opening them tomorrow."

"I hope so," I reply, and fervently mean it.

"How much longer do you think it will take you?" He asks.

"Just about three more hours, I think. The winds are cooperating."

After glancing off into the distance, he makes change for me deliberately, and murmurs, "There has to be something special about flying home on Christmas Eve."

"You don't know how right you are." I comment and walk back to the airplane where I double check the fuel caps and the quantity, crawl in and start up. I taxi a little more slowly than usual. I can back out here easily. Just head east. I can go nonstop to Willow Run; forget the exposure, the possibility of being thrown out at home. The bad possibility of more hurt. It would be much easier.

Indecision, Introspection

Takeoff is nearly automatic. As I climb I think: Turn around. Forget the whole stupid idea. They won't want to see you, not after all the words and accusations. I look at the brightly-wrapped gifts overflowing the seat behind me and realize they are just a prop. I have to make the attempt. Even without them I must go. I hold northeast toward the Upper Peninsula and home.

The countryside flows slowly under the airplane. A groundspeed check indicates I will arrive shortly before dark. Up here the winter days seem so short. I should have eaten something at the last stop. No, I don't think my stomach would have handled it very well. Who? Me? Nervous? You bet I am.

I spent nearly two months living in a motel in a town I christened Resume Speed, Texas. It was the nameless, dusty small town near where he had crashed. I felt anonymous, something that I needed.

As part of the deal, the guy who bought my airshow airplane had ferried my old Super Cub in when he picked up his purchase. It was strangely good to know the Super Cub was at the airport, although I did not go see it. I had bought it in pretty bad shape while I was in college and rebuilt it while getting my A&P certificate. I'd used the money I made towing gliders and giving flight instruction to pay for it. I'd told my folks it made it easier to get home for visits. It was true. It beat the eight-hour drive all hollow.

But, I had just let the Super Cub sit. I didn't know if I wanted to fly it, or see it or even what I would do if I did see it. I watched a lot of TV, ate only when I had to and tried, unsuccessfully, to deal with my feelings.

Had I simply refused to grow up? Was flying just running away from reality, from what was expected of me? But, by whom? Again and again I heard the voices of my folks criticizing me for flying. And still I felt the demanding pull of the sky. I could not seem to do anything. It was actually frightening. I was not in control of things for the first time, ever. I was buffeted by forces I could not handle, nor even understand.

About the first of December I awoke early one morning. The nightmare of the flaming crash had replayed itself for what seemed the thousandth time. I was sweaty, short of breath and disoriented. After sitting in the dark a while, I realized I had to begin somewhere and try to start life again. If this kept up, I figured I would end up like the bag ladies I had seen in the cities. A bag lady in a town of 400? Suddenly the image I had was so ludicrous that I laughed for several minutes.

That morning I had called up my old boss at Willow Run airport outside Detroit. He had said they could still use me. They were short of Learjet pilots. I could fly as co-pilot for a while to get my hand in and probably soon get typed and become a captain. I would even get my seniority back. The freight business was booming.

As I hung up I had thought, "Jets." I'd flown some of the big old piston-engined freighters, but jets? Could I handle it? I didn't have much experience in them at all. Sure, all the pilots I knew said they were much easier to fly than the piston pounders and I knew I'd be trained, but I wasn't sure I could handle it. That wasn't like me at all. I'd never doubted my ability to fly anything before. "It's an airplane, huh? Lead me to it and I'll fly it" had been my credo.

So, I had worried another week. Slowly I remembered the first time I had flown some very high-performance airplanes, and had had no problem. I had taken delight especially in the looks of surprise on the faces of some of the older pilots who had assumed I wouldn't be able to fly a particular airplane.

And at the end of the week I had almost convinced myself I could do the job again. So I packed up most everything and shipped it to Detroit, care of the company, hold for arrival, with a note saying I'd arrive the first part of January.

Then I went out buying Christmas presents. I didn't have a definite plan. I couldn't make any more definite plans after that one decision. I thought maybe I'd fly home for Christmas and see the family. Maybe. It was a part of setting up life again, I figured. I didn't really know, I couldn't think that deeply into it. Were the presents a bribe or an excuse? I could always mail them.

Once the presents were purchased and wrapped, I stared at them in the motel room for nearly three days before I had checked out and caught a ride to the airport.

Arrivals

I was pleased to see the Super Cub. It was in good shape. It took a while to pack everything. I was glad to see no one had disturbed the skis and that they were still safely stowed in their fuselage rack. After a careful inspection I decided the airplane was ready to go. Was I? I hoped so.

I had taken my time going north. Bad weather had caused me to fly west of the direct route. I had longer to think that way. It also caused me to be finishing the flight on Christmas Eve rather than earlier. As I looked back, the longer flight allowed me to get some of my confidence back. I was flying again and the sky had given me back the knowledge I could handle an airplane, and do it well. That was good. I felt as if I were coming back to life in a small way.

But now, decision time is near. The town is on the horizon and evening is coming. There. Near the edge of town is their house. The snow is much deeper here; it is piled along the driveway and sidewalk. The lights are on and smoke is curling out of the chimney.

I fly over the house at about 500 feet, roll into a steep turn, and circle. I'd done this so many times in college and after. Someone would always come out, then get the car and pick me up at the little airport just down the road.

Turning, I wonder what will happen. They will hear me. That, I know. But will they come out? If they do, will they pick me up?

If they don't, I can fly the short distance to Marquette, sleep under the wing or, better yet, just buy fuel and fly on through the night to Willow Run. That would be some Christmas Eve, but I knew the risks when I started this journey. No, I realize, I very much want to see them and have them accept me. I am still their daughter and I love them.

What's this? Someone, no, two ... now three people are outside the front door. They are pointing at me and gesturing. Oh, no, one is going back inside.

Automatically, I roll out of the turn and, not daring to hope, set up for landing at the airport. I will land, wait a while and see if they come.

I slap the skis onto the snow and taxi to the parking area, hardly aware of what I am doing. I leave the engine running at idle, vaguely thinking that I can just add power and get out of here.

A car comes into the parking lot, a little too fast. It skids slightly as it stops. I don't recognize it. The doors open and, my mom, dad and one brother get out.

My God, my folks look old. Dad is trying to help Mom as they both hurry toward me, a little unsteady on the snow.

Suddenly, everything is a little blurred. They are getting close now and I can see them better. They are smiling.

I reach up and shut off the engine.

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Refurb of the Month: Ron Burdine's Twin Comanche

Piper's Twin Comanche--affectionately known as the Twinkie by many owners--is one of the most efficient twin-engine aircraft ever manufactured, eclipsed only Diamond's diesel-powered DA42. The Twin Comanche is a popular refurb platform because the airframe performs well and is reasonably priced on the used market. For this month's refurb of the month, we've picked Ron Burdine's beautifully restored and upgraded Twin Comanche.

"This airplane," writes Burdine, "had a complete avionics panel upgrade by JetSun Aviation in Sioux City, Iowa finished in Feburary 2013 after four months. It included an extensive annual to put it in top condition. Here are the items installed:

New panel insert with Garmin G500 PFD/MFD and synthetic vision, IFR Flite charts and Safetaxi, Garmin GTN 750 and 650 with traffic, terrain, charts, weather through the ADS-B Garmin GDL88 in and out UAT receiver and a Garmin 396 panel mount back up slaved to GTN 750 with XM Weather.

Also retained was the Garmin back-up CDI ILS indiator and WX-1000 Stormscope, second gear down light installed by the G500 PFD, vertical card compass, and Micro Vision VGs installed. There's also a new STEC 55 autopilot fully coupled to the 750 and 650.

It has 3732 total with 1345 hours since major overhaul left and right. Very good paint, Jetglow and decent black four-seat interior and no damage history. The airplane is based at Carroll, Iowa."

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New airplanes sales may be a little soft, but we're seeing plenty of refurb work -- everything from new panels to fresh paint to full-up interiors. We would like to feature some of these airplanes in the pages of AVweb and spotlight the owners and shops doing the work. If you have photos of your restored aircraft -- single, twin or turbine -- send them to us at refurb-otm@avweb.com. If we select your airplane as refurb of the month, we'll contact you for more information.

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U.S. Sport Aviation Expo
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January 16-19, 2014
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What The People Want

It didn't get much attention, but it's possible that The Future started last week, when the German company building the Volocopter set a new crowdfunding record and raised about $1.6 million in three and a half days. The money will be enough to complete flight tests with the prototype, and the company says it's ready to quickly move onward to production from there. The final version will be stable, reliable, and easy to fly, the company says, and will be ready for deliveries by 2016.

The Volocopter may seem goofy to pilots who grew up with Cessnas and Cubs, but to a newer generation, it might be the perfect way to navigate the sky. "It makes the experience of flying safer, simpler, and more accessible, and therefore fun," said Satyendra Pakhalé, a designer who chose the Volocopter as his "favorite thing" this week for a Bloomberg holiday feature. Those qualities -- safe, simple, and fun -- are key to the aircraft's appeal.

GA advocates often compare airplanes to boats or motorcycles, as recreational vehicles that, as a bonus, provide transportation. The trouble is, you can play with your bike or your boat all summer long, store it for the winter, and next summer pick up where you left off. Airplanes are not so forgiving. Conscientious pilots always feel that nagging worry that their skills are degrading, those turns to final are not as crisp or sure as they used to be, the flight-planning sequence is not so intuitive as it once was. For some pilots, that constant challenge is part of the fun, and they embrace it. But for others, who are looking for safe and simple, once they slip behind the curve and sense the margin of safety eroding, it's not fun anymore, and they go boating instead.

The Volocopter may not be the GA aircraft of the future. But the enthusiastic response to funding its development might be a sign that people do still want to fly, and they may even want to buy an aircraft. They want that aircraft to be safe, simple, and fun to fly, and if it can also be quiet, maintenance-free, and cheap to operate, that's even better. Cessna pilots might laugh at such a list, but the pilots of the future -- who already are among us -- will expect nothing less.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Video: Pristine Airplanes Refurbishment

In an emerging aircraft refurbishment market, Smithville, Ohio-based Aircraft Sales Inc. stands out with a comprehensive and highly customized rebuild process.  In this AVweb video, Aviation Consumer's Larry Anglisano presents an inside look at the company's Pristine Airplane refurbishment process.

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Podcast: Aviation Hall of Fame's Class of 2014

The National Aviation Hall of Fame, based in Dayton, Ohio, added six new names to its roster of more than 200 air and space pioneers this week.  Ron Kaplan, enshrinement director for the NAHF, tells AVweb's Mary Grady about the varied and impressive achievements of this year's class.