“May you live in interesting times.” The purported Chinese curse is a most suitable understatement for what we inhabitants of this fragile blue marble have been experiencing as the year 2020 grinds on. Here in the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport the regulars have been staying in touch electronically and flying little. COVID-19 has meant no flying at all for some renters—although that is starting to change—pay cuts and/or layoffs for several of the professional pilots, uncertainty for those who have been working hard on ratings with the goal of a career in the sky, and sorrow as we have lost one regular to the malevolent virus.
Several of my friends in the lounge have been annual denizens at the big aviation events—Sun ‘n Fun, AirVenture, AOPA Fly Ins, the Reno Air Races. I’ve watched them go from hope that they’ll be able to make their annual pilgrimage, to uncertainty and finally, to some degree of disappointment and acceptance as one after another is canceled. From most I hear that they have shifted gears and are already making plans to go next year. They are rolling with the punches.
“I’ll Do It Sometime”
But I am hearing increasingly from the procrastinators. The ones who never went to Oshkosh, although they had talked of going for years, and from those I’d often invited for a weekend of flying on floats or skis but they always said that they’d go next year, and from those who had repeatedly spoken of a desire to learn aerobatics, or fly tailwheel or become a volunteer pilot or get their instrument rating or just learn to fly—but never pulled the trigger. I am hearing them blasting themselves for not acting on their dreams and wondering why in the world they find themselves forever sitting on the sidelines. They had always had an excuse—something else was more pressing, there wasn’t time, it’s just a little too expensive—and now they were realizing that they really may have blown it—they may never roll a Citabria or touch down on that remote, silent lake in a seaplane. They are watching aviation organizations struggle or go out of business and they have the very real fear that because they procrastinated, they will someday be sitting in the long-term care home angrily regretting the aviation adventures they didn’t have and the memories they didn’t make.
Maybe it’s time to explore a hard truth about general aviation—there isn’t always a chance to do it next year.
Motivated by the Fear of Missing Something
One of the ways I’m getting through the staying isolated COVID-19 fight is to look at my logbook and call up memories of flights that were exciting adventures—a first solo in a hot air balloon, flying warbirds, doing aerobatics in a glider. As I look and remember, I am instantly grateful that my late Aunt Beryl seemed motivated by a fear of missing something—and that she passed that on to me from my many talks with her. She seemingly did everything cool. She learned to fly in President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) before World War II. She loved flying and kept on until she couldn’t get the Piper J-3’s stick back to flare when she was pregnant with her son. After her husband died in the War, she quit flying, but she made sure her son learned how, and once he was an adult she embarked on an adventurous life of travel and teaching in foreign lands.
She was one of many in my family that encouraged me when I wanted to learn to fly. I can’t help but wonder if it was Beryl’s sense of grabbing adventure the moment it appeared that caused me to first reach out beyond the world of straight and level flight in a single-engine land airplane. I can remember her telling me that she was glad that she had signed up for CPTP flight training as soon as she heard about it because the part of the program that included women only existed for a brief time. It turned out to be the only time that the U.S. government paid for women to take primary flight training until women were finally allowed to become military pilots in the 1970s (the WASPs of WWII had to be experienced pilots before they could enter that program). Beryl saw the door open and hurtled through it before it clanged shut for decades.
From Beryl and two other aunts, Marvel and Gladys, who had weathered poverty during the Great Depression, it was ingrained in me that opportunities were fleeting—if I didn’t act, I may not have a second chance for years, if at all.
It proved to be painfully true in aviation. The little FBO where I learned to fly had a Piper J-3 for rent. I was determined to fly tailwheel airplanes, so I soloed it after I soloed a Cessna 150 and used it for one of my student cross country flights. Not long after I got my private ticket, the airplane was sold and there were no other tailwheel airplanes available for rent in the area for some time. Early in my senior year of high school, the local Cessna dealer put a 150 Aerobat on the flight line and offered aerobatic instruction. I called immediately, took lessons as frequently as I could afford them, finished the checkout and rented the airplane over the next few months—until it was destroyed in a crash.
Such experiences seared themselves into my consciousness. When a local operator decided to put two Citabrias and a Maule on the rental line, I checked out as soon as I could and flew and instructed in them, happily—until one of the Citabrias was wrecked and the operator realized that he was losing money, so he sold the remaining airplanes.
I could not afford to rent what was generally available for a multi-engine rating—Cessna 310s—but a multi-engine CFI friend was flying night freight in Beech 18s. It was OK with his company if he took someone along. Strangely, nobody seemed to want to go. I went as often as I could, so my first hours of multi-engine dual were in a Beech 18. Naturally, after a short period of time the company decided that letting folks ride along wasn’t the brightest idea and banned the practice. Later, when I was where there was a multi-engine airplane I could afford to rent, a Piper Apache, the experience that I’d gained meant it took a very short time to get the rating—and I could afford it.
Twice, local FBOs rented six-place singles, a practice almost unheard of now. It meant that I could afford to go to Oshkosh those years because splitting the rental cost six ways made it cheaper per person that renting and splitting the cost of a slower, four-place airplane.
During law school I was a member of a flying club. One of the club members leased his Luscombe to the club so it would have a tailwheel airplane. He put it on skis for two months one winter. I checked out without delay and have loved flying skis ever since. Taking advantage of that brief window led to some delightful winter flying adventures with good friends over many years.
Too many times I’ve watched a pilot get a chance to fly something very special, a warbird, jet, helicopter, antique airplane—and decide that she or he was too busy to do it right then. But when the pilot had time the opportunity was gone—the price had gone up so much that it was unaffordable, the aircraft had changed hands, had been wrecked, couldn’t get insurance …
Grab Life with Both Hands
There are absolutely wonderful things in general aviation—which is why we learned to fly in the first place. The experiences we’ve had, the things we’ve seen, the aircraft we’ve flown and the people we’ve met have enriched our lives.
There’s more to do out there, more adventures to have, more memories to create. However, in my experience, the opportunities are too often cruelly time limited. You’ve wanted to fly a hot air balloon, go skydiving, soaring, fly a warbird, learn aerobatics, be a volunteer pilot for a public benefit flying organization, see the Reno Air Races, get a seaplane rating … dozens of things. COVID-19 isn’t going to last forever. You’re going to get another chance.
This time grab it.
Rick Durden is a CFI-I, holds an ATP with Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation type ratings and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2. Volume 3 will be out soon.
The runway lights were just coming on when I met Kary and Karver in the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport. Kary is a longtime CFI and volunteer pilot with the Civil Air Patrol and I admire her judgment on safety matters. Karver is a young man who recently completed his instrument and commercial ratings and wants to start doing some volunteer flying. I’d asked them to join me because I wanted to run something by them.
I’m on the safety committee of the Air Care Alliance, the umbrella group that supports all public benefit flying (PBF) organizations. In the last year I’d spent a lot of time working with pilots involved with “safety best practices” for their various PBF organizations. Recognizing that the type of flying involved in the PBF world varies all over the map from backcountry, short airstrip operations through surveilling the landscape looking for missing airplanes or environmental depredation, to serious IFR in crummy weather, I worked to come up with a set of volunteer flying safety guidelines that could be applied to a volunteer pilot flying for any of the PBF groups.
I’d talked over my ideas with a lot of people I respect in the aviation safety community. This evening, I wanted to put the result in front of a couple of pilots from each end of the PBF spectrum—Kary, with her thousands of hours and experience as a CAP check pilot, and Karver, who is about to get started as a volunteer pilot and has just over 250 hours as PIC, the bare minimum to volunteer for most PBF groups. The three of us talked for a couple of hours as I fine-tuned my notes. The following is what emerged.
While public benefit flying involves providing free airlift for just about anything imaginable—special needs passengers for medical treatment, dogs to sophisticated training facilities to learn to assist humans, wounded veterans to get home to their families, supplies for disaster relief, grief support—to only give a few examples—the pilots involved share a set of common bonds: First, and what is wonderful about PBF flying, pilots want to donate their skills and aircraft to help others. Second, those pilots are Type A individuals powerfully driven to accomplish things.
It’s that second common bond that has made PBF flying successful while providing its greatest risk factor. Pilots are the poster children for what the shrinks call “mission-continuation bias.” They are single-mindedly focused on getting an airplane to a destination at a level that is awe-inspiring to a layperson. That’s wonderful for those served by PBF. The downside is, as professional aviation learned a long time ago, that can mean that those laser-focused pilots may not always make the rational and sensible decision to postpone, cancel or divert when weather or another variable raises significant doubts about successful completion of the intended flight.
That’s serious. It’s caused many aircraft crashes and was the subject of an excellent book by Key Dismukes, The Limits of Expertise: Rethinking Pilot Error and the Causes of Airline Accidents. There’s more about the book, mission-continuation bias and how it adversely affects the quality of a pilot’s decision-making in an AVweb article from a few years ago. Dismukes spent much of his career as NASA’s chief scientist for aerospace human factors and he’s a longtime volunteer pilot. I’ve spent some quality time with him talking about PBF safety and attended a presentation on volunteer pilot safety at LightHawk’s most recent annual fly-in and conference. LightHawk is a conservation PBF organization.
Recognizing the pressure volunteer pilots put on themselves to complete a flight brings up the first, and perhaps, key recommendation for pilots and people who run PBF groups: Don’t do anything to inadvertently put more pressure on pilots to complete a flight—they’re already applying plenty of pressure on themselves—they don’t need outside help.
Don’t Call it a Mission: It’s a Flight
Most PBF organizations refer to the flights their volunteers make as “missions.” The dictionary I looked at defines mission as “an important assignment carried out for military, political, religious or commercial purposes, typically involving travel.” In aviation, the word brings to mind the dawn patrols of World War I and heroic rescues of mariners in peril in fearsome weather by Coast Guard helicopter pilots. Volunteer pilots all want to be one of those heroes. Most won’t admit it out loud, but it’s true, and accidents involving mission-continuation bias show that it’s true. Pilots second-guess themselves when they cancel a trip or divert rather than continue to the destination. It’s the way we’re wired.
In my opinion, PBF organizations should do their best to eliminate subconscious pressure on pilots to carry out a flight. It seems to me that calling a flight a mission and running “Missions Completed” headlines in fundraising materials can erase all of the pious “we never push pilots to go” statements uttered by PBF personnel.
The good thing is that in 30 years of flying as a volunteer pilot, I’ve been in scores of PBF safety committee and board of director meetings and have heard board members and volunteer pilots state forcefully that the top priority of the group was safety and that they would never give any negative feedback to a volunteer pilot who canceled a flight. I think they all have meant it, so why not call a flight a flight? Pilots are cool, flights are way cool—there’s no need to overly aggrandize them by calling them missions when doing so creates a risk. Besides, volunteer pilots are already heroes for the flights they’ve made to help others.
There Are No Emergency Takeoffs
There are no emergency PBF flights. We’re not delivering life-saving serum to Nome (how the Iditarod dog sled race got started) nor are we rushing severely injured people from an accident scene to the emergency room. No one is going to die if a PBF flight gets postponed or canceled. They may be inconvenienced, but that’s it.
The Civil Air Patrol understands this and the constant challenge of the desire of humans to help others—even at the risk of their own lives. CAP members can recite dozens of search and rescue efforts in which searchers pushed weather and died trying to find a missing aircraft. That organization moves heaven and earth to train their pilots to say no when conditions aren’t right. Yes, they still call their flights “missions,” but they’re a quasi-military organization, formed during World War II, so I don’t think that they can’t help it, it’s tradition. Probably not a good one, but one that is firmly entrenched.
The best PBF organizations recognize that every PBF flight is optional. They fervently appreciate the pilots who look at the weather, passenger weights, runway conditions, airplane condition and their own condition and have the guts to say, “No, I’m not doing this one today.”
Those who have been around the block in the PBF world know that there have been serious injuries and deaths because volunteer pilots who were too determined to complete a flight tried to do so when the weather was too bad, the airplane not up to snuff or the pilot not in good shape—and people died.
Accordingly, my first recommendation is that PBF organizations should call their flights what they are—flights, not missions—and take away the very real pressure the M word puts on pilots to go when their good judgment is telling them to leave the airplane in the hangar.
Spring-Loaded to “No”
When I teach new volunteer pilots about planning for the type of flying they’ll be doing with a PBF group, I recommend approaching the flight in the fashion a former NASA employee taught me: The default answer to every question during preflight, takeoff, continuing while en route and approach is “No.” As the pilot, I have to find evidence that is strong enough to convert that “No” to a “Yes” if I am going to take the next step. It may be simple—can I complete the flight without getting into a thunderstorm? I start with a “No,” and then look at all the forecasts. If I see that the radar picture is clear and the forecast information puts the risk of thunderstorms along my route to the destination and alternates at a satisfactorily low level, I’ll put a “Yes” in that box. In the same fashion, on takeoff, for example, if the airspeed indicator doesn’t come off the peg within about five seconds, the answer to the continue takeoff question remains “No” and cannot be changed to “Yes.” The throttle comes back, the brakes are applied and the flight is postponed.
More and more data are showing that the biggest variable in general aviation safety is the period of time since a pilot took recurrent training. Most PBF organizations that I’ve observed require a pilot to have had a flight review within the last 12 months to be qualified to be an active volunteer. If IFR ops are involved, they require the pilot not to just be legally IFR current, but also to have completed an IPC in the last 12 months. I think every 12 months for a FR and IPC to volunteer is a minimum requirement. The pros get recurrent training every six months—one of the reasons corporate, Part 135 and Part 121 flying enjoy such low accident rates. I’d like to see volunteer pilots who are carrying innocent people who don’t know much about little airplanes also get recurrent training every six months.
By the time a pilot has the experience required to get involved with public benefit flying, she or he has been making go/no go weather decisions with some success for some time. For PBF operations, I suggest turning the personal rheostat to an even more conservative setting. If nothing else, it will help offset the subtle pressures on you to go. This is not the place for a charter pilot wannabe who will go so long as the weather is above published approach minimums. Besides, the last thing a PBF organization wants is an accident of any sort—the organization exists to help people, not hurt them.
On the VFR end of things, flights where you are carrying observers and/or photographers, such as environmental support and search and rescue, require really good VFR. Carrying out one of those flights in three-mile visibility means you may get the “mission accomplished” feel, but it was probably of no value to your passengers. In addition, turbulence should be respected—a passenger on the verge of the technicolor yawn is not a good observer.
A good PBF will provide you with information about your passengers prior to flight and may put you in touch with them. You need to know weights and what they are going to be bringing. You may not have had experience dealing with pet crates, folding wheelchairs or portable oxygen, so any knowledge you can obtain prior to the flight helps a great deal. Having your passengers show up with something that won’t fit in your airplane is not pleasant. I know.
Recognize that people lie. Passengers benefiting from a PBF flight really, really want to make the flight, so they may understate their weight or the size of stuff they want to bring. Give yourself a fudge factor on weight. Be prepared to say “No” when passengers want to change something at the last minute or someone does or says something prior to boarding that sets off your internal alarm system. Your aeronautical gut is pretty smart—it’s a good idea to listen to it when it gets queasy.
Go the extra mile to communicate with your passengers. They are going to be nervous. The more they understand about what is going on, the better—and safer—everything will be. Something as commonplace to you as how to unfasten an airplane seatbelt can mystify a passenger. Brief everything slowly and carefully—exits, seatbelts, sterile cockpit, noises they are going to hear and what they’re going to feel. Discuss motion sickness and sick sacks openly—it’s reassuring and reduces the risks of unpleasantness in flight.
Talk with your passengers during flight. Ask them how they’re doing. They’ll always say “Fine.” Pay attention to how they say it.
Flight Operations—Call Sign Compassion
Back in 1998 the Air Care Alliance worked with the FAA to create the call sign COMPASSION, with the three-letter identifier “CMF,” in order to identify PBF flights to ATC and enhance safety. When properly assigned, using the call sign can provide benefits such as more expeditious handling, the ability to fly in certain TFRs and changes in routing and altitudes to accommodate passengers with medical issues or animals being transported, among other things. To use the callsign both the volunteer pilot and the PBF organization must be authorized by the FAA. Details are at the Air Care Alliance’s website. I’ve heard some pretty wonderful stories about controllers going the extra mile to help out an airplane using the callsign.
Things do go wrong during flights. If you have an emergency—medical or otherwise—don’t mess around—declare it. You’re the PIC. Marshal the resources available to you with an emergency declaration. A controller can’t give you priority handling just because you ask for it—declaring an emergency takes you to the front of the line. This is exactly the wrong time to be the strong, silent type.
If it’s a medical emergency, ATC is your ally in having an ambulance waiting when you land.
An unpleasant reality of volunteer flying is that it is expensive for the volunteer pilot. The FARs are clear on the subject—when you make a volunteer flight you have to pay 100% of the cost. Here’s an AVweb article on the legalities.
That means that by the time a person has the financial resources to donate flying time, she or he may have left age 50 well astern. The harsh reality is that the executive functions of our brains slow down as we age. We don’t learn as fast and we do not handle new situations—and emergencies—as well as we did when we were 19 (the peak year for that sort of thing).
I’ve noticed that a number of the PBF accidents involved pilots who were over 50. That may be because they also make up the majority of volunteer pilots, but it also means that as volunteer pilots age, it’s necessary to become more conservative in deciding which flights to make and which to cancel.
AOPA has an excellent course on the subject, entitled Aging Gracefully. I’ve noticed that some PBF organizations require that their pilots take the course. I think that’s a good idea.
I also strongly recommend the interactive course on PBF flying safety developed jointly by the Air Care Alliance and AOPA, Public Benefit Flying: Balancing Safety and Compassion.
To me, being a volunteer pilots helps us make the world a little better, one flight at a time. It enhances the image of general aviation and provides more reasons to go flying—and the more we fly, the safer we are. It can push your personal comfort zone and absolutely demands that you bring your A game for skills and decision-making. It will also probably be some of the most personally rewarding flying you ever do because you are flying for people who truly need what you provide. They will be putting their faith in you to get them to their destination safely. Don’t let them down.
Rick Durden has been a volunteer pilot for LightHawk for 30 years and was one of three recipients of the 2015 Endeavor Award for Public Benefit Flying. He is a CFI-I, holds an ATP with Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation type ratings and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2. Volume 3 will be out soon.
It’s been unusually quiet in the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport. We lost Old Hack last week. No, he wasn’t missing. I’m getting the words all wrong. We knew right where he was—in the long-term care facility where he’d been the last year or so—the place that he rudely referred to as the “feebs and droolers” ward because he said it described him. But we lost him.
He went west, dammit. Yeah, that euphemism for death has been around for something over 700 years, but it came into common usage among aviators in World War I. I find that using it is a comfort when I think of a pilot friend who has closed their logbook forever.
We got the summons via email from Karver. Karver, who is barely into his 20s, a relatively new pilot and who had become close to Old Hack as he, Karver, was starting to add ratings, told everyone he could think of to show up at the pilot’s lounge because he was throwing a wake for Hack.
I got here early so I’d get a seat in one of the big, ratty old recliners and got to thinking about my late friend. Hack had been in his 90s. He’d bought a Piper Super Cruiser nearly new and flew it with panache and élan until he was well into his 80s—and had crossed the line well into irascible decades ago. Karver’s friendship with Old Hack had turned out well. After Hack was moved into long-term care, Karver would sneak him out and bring him to the pilot’s lounge. We loved those visits. Old Hack’s mind stayed clear to the end; his body just wore out.
The lounge filled up. I saw Sandy, retired from flying wide-body freighters, talking with Barb, whose twins had grown up flying with their mother whenever she had the extra cash to rent an airplane. On the other side of the room, Armando, who’d become an instructor when he was in his 40s, was talking with some of his teenaged students.
About then, Karver walked in carrying a small box and went to the center of the room. He looked around and began, “All right. We’re here. Thank you for taking the time to come to remember someone we all loved and who, admit it, made a big impression on each of us. We’re going to have a wake for Old Hack, and we’re going to do it his way.”
Karver reached into the box and pulled out a bottle of very good single-malt scotch. “Hack told me what he wanted—this bunch of pilots getting together to talk flying over what he referred to as a wee dram of the good stuff.”
Karver set the box down and then withdrew a stack of small paper cups. Over the course of a few minutes each of us who was over 21 wound up with a little cup containing a splash of scotch.
Karver held up his cup and scanned the room, “We all knew Old Hack as one of the toughest, orneriest sorts around. You also know that he loved to fly more than anything. What you don’t know is that over the last two years he had me coordinate with the owner of the flight school, Dave, to find out if there were any kids that were learning to fly, were the sort that wanted to fly more than anything in the world and could use a little help. He arranged for some extra money to show up in those kid’s accounts at the flight school. Dave was only allowed to tell them that it was from an anonymous scholarship.”
I noticed that four or five of the younger student and private pilots in the room were looking startled as Karver continued, “Those of you who received some surprise help toward your ratings now know where the money came from. Old Hack wanted to do what he could to help as many people as possible follow their dream of flight. So, ladies and gentlemen, please raise your cups to Old Hack.”
After our toast with “the good stuff,” Karver went on, “About six months ago I told Hack that I’d found out that in over 50 years of flying he’d never had an accident. I asked him what he’d learned that had helped him fly successfully for so long. He gave me some profane denial about being any kind of an example for pilots and I dropped the subject. About a month later, when he gave me the scotch and the instructions for this wake, he also gave me a letter to read to you.”
With that, Karver again reached into the box, pulled out and unfolded piece of paper and started reading:
“Yeah you bums, I’m dead. With all of your collective bad habits, I’m surprised that you didn’t go first. Plus, if I did it right, my last check has bounced by now. I’m hoping that I ran out of money about the same time nature pulled the plug on me. So, none of you are getting a cent. This letter lets me be a cantankerous old coot from beyond the grave. Somehow it gives me comfort that being a curmudgeon—I think that’s what some of you used to call me—doesn’t have to expire when the person does.
“I started putting this letter together after Karver foolishly thought that because I’d been flying for a few years and had never bent any airplanes that I might tell you some of the things that I’d learned. I told him to get lost. Then, after he left, I thought about it.
“The first thing that came to mind was that the hardest lesson for me to learn, but probably the most important, was humility. Yeah, I always came across as an old loudmouth in public. You knew that was posturing and you were good enough to never call me on it. From the time I was a teenaged new pilot and was sure I knew everything; the sky would give me the back of its hand and let me know that I didn’t. It took me a long time to learn that as long as I flew, I had to keep my mind open because there was so much to learn and what I didn’t learn could kill me.
“I remember how astonished everyone was when I decided to get my instrument rating when I was over 70. I’d finally gotten it through my thick head that I had to keep learning and evolving as the world around me changed and that if I kept scud running, I’d get killed. There were getting to be too many towers out there and they weren’t easy to see when visibility went down. Getting that instrument rating was a tremendous learning process. It also gave me a lot of new things to enjoy about flying.
“I found out that the more I learned about flying, the more I enjoyed it.
“I don’t want this to come across as preaching. I get so tired of those knotheads that can’t stop talking about all of the hazards of flying and how you have to go through what sounds like a two-day risk analysis session before you can even go shoot touch-and-goes. I’ve sometimes wondered whether I could bang one of those types against one of those hold-my-beer-and-watch-this bozos and create two pilots who understood that flying is one hell of a lot of fun but that the price of admission to that enjoyment is a certain constant level of wariness. I’ve come to believe that for people who know how to be adults, flying is right near the top when it comes to purely enjoyable things to do.
“I also learned that I could learn from anybody—no matter what their level of experience and whether I liked them or not. Everyone I flew with or talked flying with had their ways of doing things—I did my best to listen and hang onto the good ideas.
“So, I’ll start with stuff before the flight. I’ve seen it in the hangars around here. You’ve all got brooms—store the things with the bristles up. I learned that from an old Army Air Force crew chief when I was a kid. If you store them with the bristles on the ground, they get bent and it takes twice as much effort to sweep out your hangar. That’s wasted time you could have been using to go flying.
Hand On The Towbar
“I’ve seen the results of too many pilots taking off with the towbar on the airplane. If the towbar is on the airplane, it’s also in your hand—always. If it’s not in your hand, don’t let it be attached to the airplane. That’s a pretty simple rule that kept me out of trouble.
“At least once a year, sit in the airplane and go through the emergency procedures section of the POH. It’ll do wonders for being able to remember the procedures if you ever need them. Oh, and by the way—you’re going to need them someday. I just can’t tell you which day. So, be ready. Real life aviating is a pass-fail test.
“Before you start the airplane, give yourself a minute or two of uninterrupted, quiet time where you get yourself fully focused on flying and on the speeds and systems of that specific airplane. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Randy Sohn who had been the chief check airman for the CAF and regularly flew everything from single-engine fighters through their B-29. He introduced me to that practice. I thought it was a great idea and still do.
“Seeing the world go from black-and-white into color during a dawn takeoff is worth the discomfort of getting up early.
“As you roll onto the runway, make a final check for traffic, check the killers again—fuel, flaps and trim—and cross-check the heading indicator against the runway heading. One of you in the Lounge here added the last part to my personal checklist. He told me about his friend who died on a night takeoff in a Hansa Jet when he went down the short runway instead of the long one.
“Follow NASA’s approach to a launch when you’re on takeoff: Everything is a ‘no’ until the airplane convinces you it’s a ‘yes.’ Manifold pressure and rpm where they should be? If no, abort. If yes, continue. Airspeed coming alive? If no, abort. If yes, continue. At runway midpoint do you have 71% of liftoff speed? If no, abort. If yes, continue. When you try to raise the nosewheel for takeoff, does it come off the ground? If no, abort. If yes, continue.
“Unless you’ve actually practiced it, you’ll be astonished at how hard and far you have to shove the nose down to maintain airspeed if the engine quits during climbout. If you haven’t practiced it, there’s a good chance that you’re going to stall the airplane.
“Lean the mixture anytime you’re in level flight. That’s the way the engine was designed to be run. There’s no magic minimum altitude. Good grief, I listen to a lot of you complain about the cost of fuel and then you waste it? I can’t figure you out.
“Especially when you’ve been forced down by low clouds and reduced visibility, the weather isn’t going to get better in five miles. It’s a nasty fact. Either turn around or make a precautionary landing, now.
“Most of you in the Lounge like airplane noise. Not everyone does. Be considerate and for crying out loud, don’t push the prop rpm up on downwind. Wait until base or final.
“Run the GUMP check at least three times before landing—downwind, base and final—and say it out loud while you touch the controls. Repetition helps prevent embarrassment.
“Know how to slip the damn airplane. There’s just no excuse for high and fast. And, no, slips with full flaps are probably not prohibited in your airplane—look at the POH.
“Going around is never the wrong thing to do unless you’re out of fuel. In fact, it is always the thing to do if you haven’t got things wired together and on speed on final. Practice making them well into the flare.
“It’s never OK to criticize a pilot who makes a go-around. That pilot is showing good judgment.
“Close the throttle before you flare. Don’t be a lazy bum—pull the nose up, burn off the speed and touch down slowly. Extra speed on touchdown is not your friend.
“Get into the sky any way and as many ways as you can. It’s worth it. Fly ultralights, take glider lessons, take a hot air balloon ride, skydive, do it all. Savor the experiences. Take it from me, you don’t want to be sitting in the geezer home, sucking on your gums and regretting the flying you didn’t do.
“OK, I know some of you saw me do it. I regularly thanked my airplane after a flight. It was my way for me to remind myself how grateful I was to be able to fly, for the system we have that allows us to fly little airplanes and for the amazing people who designed and built them. It also reminds me that other people helped me get to where I can fly an airplane and I need to pay that forward. My question is, why aren’t you thanking your airplane after a flight?
“I’ve said enough. I had a lot of good years around little airplanes. Now enjoy the evening. Tomorrow go do something worthwhile—go flying. And take someone along so they can enjoy it, too.”
Into the stillness in the room, Karver said a little more, “Old Hack did pretty much clean out his bank account not long before he died. He used what he had left to set up a scholarship fund for high school kids in the area who want to learn to fly. Our EAA chapter is administering the trust, so if you’ve got some candidates in mind, pass the word.”
As I sat there, I realized that Old Hack had always concentrated on the next hour of flight, not the last. He had just admonished us, his best friends, to focus on what we could add to our lives, not mourn what was gone. There are different airplanes to fly and new people to get to know. Hack wanted, more than anything, to keep general aviation alive and well—and his letter and Karver’s remarks were the knock upside the head telling me to get out of my funk and embrace the sky and tomorrow. I got up, walked over to the group of student pilots talking with Armando and joined the conversation with the future of aviation.
Old Hack is a combination of pilots I’ve known and respected over the years. One of them did buy a Super Cruiser almost new and flew it for decades. I learned an incredible amount from them—and a few times, what I learned from them meant I lived to fly another day. My local EAA chapter raises money to provide scholarships for young adults seeking pilot ratings. Helping out with that is hugely rewarding. I store my hangar broom with the bristles up—the knowledge of a World War II Army Air Force crew chief lives on.
Rick Durden is a CFI-I, holds an ATP with Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation type ratings and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2. Volume 3 will be out soon.
It was a foggy mid-week morning when I stopped into the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport. I was doing some research for an article in our sister publication Aviation Consumer and I needed Wi-Fi access, so I figured I’d tap into the flight school’s system. Karver, recently instrument rated and Kary, a long-time pilot and Civil Air Patrol check pilot, were headed out to get some practice in the clag before the fog was forecast to burn off.
We greeted each other in passing, but then Karver stopped and said to me, “Hey. If the engine quits while we’re out in low IFR, Kary told me that we won’t have much time after we break out of the clouds to select where we’re gonna land and that I should just aim for something soft and cheap. Is she kidding me?”
I did my best impression of a deer in the headlights and responded, “Um, well, not really. But, no matter how much time you have to choose a forced landing spot, there are some rules of thumb to keep in mind to maximize your chances of a surviving. Believe it or not, the little bug-smashers we fly are pretty crashworthy if you touch down right side up, just above stall speed and are wearing a shoulder harness. They’re even better if you have a BRS parachute on the airplane and have gone over the guidelines on its use. I’ve got some stuff on crashworthiness I can pull up and give to you after you fly.”
“Great. I’ll see you then.”
Pulling together the material for Karver turned into an interesting exercise in general aviation risk analysis. I made a bunch of notes.
It’s The Quick Stop
There are things that pilots/aircraft owners can do to increase the chance of survival when everything goes bad and they’ve got to put the airplane down or they lose control during landing—the two highest risk events pilots face that can lead to a survivable ground impact (loss of control in flight, CFIT and VFR into IMC crashes usually result in high-speed, nonsurvivable impacts). I’ll start with a little background.
Since World War II there has been a massive amount of research into what the human body can withstand when in a vehicle during an impact event. In the aviation world, NACA/NASA did extensive full-scale testing of airplanes and occupant restraint systems and were joined by Cessna and Piper when those companies provided airplanes for crash testing. Sophisticated research is continuing, and the results have been progressively incorporated into general aviation aircraft design and design regulations. In general, even many of the 1940-era designs will do a fairly good job of protecting the occupants in a crash sequence if the three cardinal tenants of crash survival are followed: A. The occupants are fully strapped in—shoulder harness and seat belt, B. the speed of the initial impact is minimized (force is a squared function) and C. the airplane has as much space as possible to slow down between the initial impact point and where everything comes to a stop.
Restraining the occupants is step one. The nonsense still sometimes heard about people being “thrown clear” of an airplane in a crash is truly pure nonsense. A human ejected from a vehicle doing 50 MPH doesn’t survive the subsequent impact with the ground, trees or a building. The quick stop destroys internal organs and the aorta.
Keeping the occupant attached to the seat and in the vehicle means that the structure of the airplane can absorb impact loads that otherwise would be transmitted to the fragile human, reducing the G loading on the person. That means each person in the airplane needs to be wearing a seatbelt and shoulder harness—that way the person gets the benefit of the crashworthy design of the structure and is less likely to “flail” and strike some portion of the cockpit during the impact sequence.
Seatbelts alone are not enough. No human is strong enough to brace against a sudden impact of even two or three Gs toward the instrument panel. The body jackknifes over the seatbelt and hits something hard. A head injury means the risk of fatal injury goes way up. It also means that there’s a high risk that the occupant is dazed from even a low-G crash and can’t get it together enough to get out of the airplane quickly, generating a high risk of further injury if there is a fire.
The FAA has been keeping accident data for a long time: It reports that 88% of injuries and 20% of fatalities have been eliminated through the use of shoulder harnesses in general aviation crashes. Shoulder harnesses are as close to a silver bullet for crash survival as there is in aviation.
If the airplane has shoulder harnesses, common sense means wearing them all of the time. The greatest risk of a crash with loads that are survivable if you are strapped in is a forced landing after a power loss or a runway loss of control event. In either of those, things happen so fast that you won’t have time to put on the shoulder harness if you aren’t wearing it. Common sense is to wear the restraint system from before startup to after shutdown.
If your airplane doesn’t have shoulder harnesses, look hard at having them installed. They can be easily installed for most seats on all Cessna singles (they were generally available as optional equipment, even back in the 1940s, so a retrofit is often pretty easy). Aviation Consumer has a library of articles on retrofit shoulder harnesses free to subscribers as well as information on the new airbag seatbelt restraint systems available for retrofit.
Minimize The Speed
Force of impact is a squared function. Doubling the impact speed mean quadrupling the force on the airplane that has to be dissipated. The airplane may have all of the most recent features for absorbing energy as the structure crumbles to protect the occupants, but if the machine is moving at cruise speed at impact, even the most sophisticated crashworthy design becomes irrelevant.
If you have any control over the impact speed, make it count. If you’re dealing with a forced landing following a power loss, strive to touch down as slowly as possible without stalling the airplane. Not stalling is important—if you stall, you lose control of the aircraft and you are likely to set up a high rate of descent and the nose may pitch down sharply, both of which are ugly for surviving the impact. You want to be descending at a gentle rate so that the airplane will roll or slide over the ground and not dig in so that it stops suddenly.
Using full flaps reduces the stall speed as much as possible, so that your touchdown speed is as slow as possible. This is not the place for a reduced-flap landing.
Do your best to touch down with no side load/yaw. The maximum crush space is directly in front of you. If you hit with a side load there is a risk that you’ll smack your head against the side of the cabin or one of the cabin support pillars.
Fly The Airplane All The Way Into The Crash
When you maximize the distance that the airplane has to decelerate, you minimize the G loads on the occupants. The G-Load chart shows the ability of a healthy human to withstand impact G loads straight ahead—toward the instrument panel—if restrained with a seatbelt and shoulder harness. The variables are intensity of the load and duration. If you can spread out the impact so that the maximum load doesn’t exceed 10 Gs the chances of surviving the crash go way up.
That means that you not only touch down at minimum flying speed, but you keep steering the airplane toward where you want it to go—where the hard things aren’t—until it comes to a stop.
That rule applies to the accident that a general aviation pilot is most likely to have—loss of control after touching down on landing. If the crosswind takes you off of the runway, or you groundloop or blow a tire and you’re heading for the weeds, never give up trying to make the airplane go where you want it to go. Don’t be hesitant to put a control to the stop. Keep fighting to make the airplane go where you want it to go to minimize impact forces.
If you groundloop an airplane—the tail comes swinging around uncontrollably—keep the yoke/stick all the way aft. It will reduce the risk that the airplane will flip over and help keep weight on the landing gear, which may help you regain control of the airplane and/or use the brakes to get it stopped before you hit something.
If you get into the situation of having to steer the airplane through a maze of rocks and trees, keep in mind a rule of thumb that works: Look/focus on where you want to go. That’s where the airplane is most likely to go. If you are trying to avoid hitting a tree, don’t look at the tree—you’ll hit it. Look at the path you want to follow. It works with airplanes, cars and taking horses over jumps—you and the vehicle are most like to go where you are looking.
Use the brakes—to the point just short of sliding the tires. If you don’t know where that point is, practice on your next landings. If you’re in a tailwheel airplane, use the brakes firmly, but don’t let the tail come off the ground (you do have the stick full aft, right?). There can be a fine line between maximum braking and nosing over on a tailwheel machine. My review of accident reports over the years indicates that the Aviat Husky with its good brakes and gear geometry is an easy airplane to put on its nose—or back—with heavy braking.
If you have run off of the runway and are trying to get the airplane stopped, make sure that the throttle is at idle—I don’t know how many accidents I’ve looked at where the pilot added power to get airflow over the rudder while trying to control a swerve, lost control and then magnified the intensity of the crash by carrying power throughout the impact sequence. Do everything you can to slow down.
Oh yeah, wait until the airplane actually stops before undoing the restraint system and getting out.
Select The Surface
There has been a great deal written about selecting where you should land in the event of a forced landing. The only thing that I will add is that the numbers for survival in water landings—whether the airplane has fixed or retractable gear—are amazingly good. In over 92%, the occupants are able to get out of the airplane safely. Overall, the survival rate for general aviation ditching events is 88%. That being the case, if you are faced with landing in trees, in a rocky field, on a beach or in the water, don’t rule out landing in the water about 50 feet or so offshore. It may be the best alternative for spreading out the deceleration forces and allowing your passengers to get out uninjured.
Should you land on a highway/freeway? That’s a judgement call based on a lot of factors, one of which is that your wingspan is longer than a two-lane road is wide, so your wings will probably hit signs, mailboxes, guard rails or whatever is erected along the roadside—and that may pull you into a unyielding ditch at high speed. In addition, powerlines are nearly impossible to see, and they are erected along and across roads. Catching one with the gear or a wingtip is a seriously bad-news event. If you have no choice but to hit lines, take them on the center of the prop.
If there is traffic on the highway you face an ethical question. As a pilot, can you put innocent people on the ground at risk just so you can increase your chances in a forced landing? That’s pretty easy if you’re solo—no. If you have a plane load of passengers? That’s worth doing some thinking about now.
Gear Up Or Down
The debate on this will never end. The commonsense rule is that if you believe that the surface is such that it will catch the landing gear and flip you over right away, leave the gear up. Otherwise, it is probably wise to take advantage of anything that can absorb impact energy before it is transmitted to you—the landing gear. Gear up, you have a fairly rigid structure with only a few inches of crush distance under the seats. The landing gear was designed to absorb energy. In some airplanes, such as the Cessna 208, the gear is designed to absorb loads that occur directly aft and then snap off, reducing the deceleration loads on the occupants.
Assume The Position
Make sure the seat belt and shoulder harness are tight—if you have the time. Lean or curl forward into the shoulder harness to take out any slack. If you have time to put any padding in front of you—throw pillow, coat, blanket, anything—do so.
Turn off the master switch and the fuel prior to touchdown. An electrical short can start a fire. Shutting off the fuel helps minimize the chance that any fire will become severe.
Keep the airplane right side up. That sounds silly, but it is a killer in twins when the pilot can’t make the airplane hold altitude on one engine and gets below VMC before touchdown. The airplane will protect the occupants against some serious G loads when right side up, but not upside down. If you have to make a forced landing in a twin, do what is necessary to avoid a VMC roll.
Whole airframe parachutes have been saving lives for a generation. If the airplane has one, you’ve experienced an engine stoppage that you can’t fix or one of the other emergencies for which the parachute is designed, using it is a no brainer. Pilots and passengers have lived to fly another day because the parachute put the airplane onto the terrain (or water) at an impact speed that was survivable—and that’s the underlying goal of surviving any emergency.
BRS offers retrofits for a number of aircraft. Shoulder harnesses are the silver bullet for crash survival; whole-airplane parachutes may be the platinum one.
The Gear Won’t Come Down
To start with, breathe. Make sure you have the airplane under control and are flying in conditions where you can divert your attention to getting the gear down without running into something or someone or losing control of the airplane.
Pull out the checklist. I’m not kidding. When I look at gear-up landing accidents, in about 10%, the pilot could have extended the gear if he had simply followed the published emergency checklist. (By the way, if you’re flying a retractable-gear airplane, you have practiced emergency gear extension . . .)
If the gear won’t come down, remember that you have an emergency situation but one that is very low risk so long as you don’t do something stupid. In the last 40 years I have tried to find an NTSB report of a gear-up landing of a civilian airplane in the U.S. in which someone was injured or killed. I have not found a single gear-up landing event in which anyone was hurt when the pilot made a normal approach and landing (many pulled the mixture around the time of the flare). Hey, a gear-up landing is such a minor event that it does not even classify a reportable accident—take a look at the NTSB regs on accident definition.
However—and this is a really big however—there have been several fatal accidents where pilots shut down the engine(s) and tried to glide to the runway—and overshot or undershot. The reason? First, an engine out landing is an emergency—trying to solve one emergency by creating another ranks way up there on the stupid scale and may just make you a candidate for a Darwin Award. Second, none of the pilots had practiced engine out glides within the last six months. Third, none of the pilots had ever tried to shut down an engine, stop the prop and glide to a landing. We pilots do pretty well at complicated stuff that we’ve practiced. The first time we try a complicated something we haven’t practiced—especially with some stress in the mix—we don’t do well at all.
The odds of you landing safely gear up are extraordinarily good if you don’t do something other than make a normal landing.
You also increase the odds of a good result if you land on pavement rather than grass. NASA full-scale crash tests in the early 1970s showed that a touchdown on grass or dirt with some degree of descent rate—such as after a stall—would stop the airplane in a matter of inches as the ground gave a little and then formed a crater or berm and brought the airplane to a sudden stop. The same impact on pavement turned into a long slide and was survivable. So, if you do err on a gear-up landing and stall the airplane a few feet above the ground, it won’t be a big deal on pavement but you could be the first injury or death in a gear-up landing if you try it on an unpaved surface.
The Wrap Up
I pulled my notes together and went over to refill and start the coffee maker. A few moments later, Karver and Kary walked into the room pretty pumped up after their flight. They’d had a chance to shoot a couple of approaches to minimums before the clouds broke up. After Karver poured himself a cup of coffee, he saw that I was still in the lounge and had some paper in front of me. “Hey, Dude, did you really get some stuff on forced landings?” He looked a little surprised as he walked toward me.
I gestured at the papers, “Sure, it’s right here. And it turns out that it boils down to using shoulder harnesses, touching down as slowly as possible without stalling, flying the airplane all the way into the crash . . .”
Rick Durden is a CFII and holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation. He is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.
Now that I could see the airplane, I was pretty sure that It was an Aviat Husky. The down-to-your-shoelaces fog that I’d driven through to the airport was beginning to lose its battle with the sun. When I got out of my car 20 minutes ago, the fog had been the absolute master of the airport. I could hear a slow-moving airplane up above, seemingly standing sentinel over the invisible airport. Muted engine and prop noise in my ears, I went into one of the FBO’s big hangars to help set up for the huckleberry pancake breakfast fly-in.
Now, after 20 minutes of setting up chairs and tables and hearing the big propane griddles fire up, I stepped outside wondering if the weather would cooperate so pilots could fly in. I saw that there were great, uneven rents opening and closing in the fog. The trees on the other side of the runway would appear and then disappear as the fog and sun contested control over the airport. As I watched, patches of painfully bright blue sky appeared and widened. That’s when I was finally able to see the patient early responder to the lure of a fly-in breakfast. It was a Husky; its squared-off wingtips and smoothly rounded tail surfaces made clear. The power was pulled back to lowest cruise, the prop being barely hushed around. I could visualize the pilot—he or she had set manifold pressure and prop RPM at or near the bottom the green arcs, using minimal fuel and keeping the airplane as quiet as possible out of respect for those living near the airport and wishing to sleep to a reasonable hour on this Saturday.
The aviation lawyer in me smiled—I won’t have to defend this pilot from an FAA action—he or she obviously knew the regs. The airplane was in airspace requiring only one-mile visibility and that it stay clear of clouds. Above the diminishing fog, the visibility is undoubtedly unlimited and it would easy to remain out of the clouds and simply wait for the fog to break up. In the meantime, I can imagine the spectacular view the pilot has of mountain peaks in all directions, stark in the clear air, thousands of feet above the clouds huddled around their bases.
It’s still 30 minutes before the official start of the fly-in breakfast, but I need to get back inside to my assigned job because we’re certain to get people who arrive early, ready to eat. Our EAA Chapter, 757, of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, puts on its huckleberry pancake breakfast at the Boundary County Airport not just once a year—as is the case most places—but five times, on the last Saturday of May, June, July, August and September. It’s a big deal—and people from all around the area, not just pilots, look forward to it.
A Good News Aviation Fix
Walking back into the hangar, I looked at the faces of the teenagers and adults busy getting ready. Everyone was in a good mood. I needed an aviation good news fix. Badly.
I’d spent the previous evening in the Pilot’s Lounge at the virtual airport listening to the ADS-B procrastinators bemoan that now that they’d found the equipment they wanted for compliance with the January 1, 2020, mandate the radio shops were backed up and they couldn’t get the boxes installed in time; the usual complainers were in full voice about fuel prices and the cost of maintenance and how regulations were killing aviation and nobody wants to learn to fly and pilots are dying out and on, and on, and on.
I couldn’t take it any longer. I wanted to be with people who thought flying was pretty cool and fun and who were doing something to help some of the scores of kids who want to learn to fly make that dream of flight come true.
I knew the perfect place. That was why I was setting up chairs and tables and watching two of our EAA Chapter’s leaders, Kambiz Kamiab and Gene Andrews, discuss the consistency of the pancake batter they were creating using a power drill mixing arrangement. The huckleberries—the state fruit of Idaho—had been added and they wanted to make sure that the first batch of pancakes would be just right.
I wanted to be with people who came early to set up and stayed late to clean up a pancake breakfast that existed to raise scholarship money for kids to learn to fly. The right place to be was in this hangar so thick with enthusiasm for flying and people who want to fly that it seemed to ooze out the windows. I wanted to see what airplanes would fly in and talk with pilots and those who wanted to be pilots and those who just wanted to come and pay their seven dollars for breakfast because that would help kids in the community learn to fly.
EAA Chapter 757 has been putting on multiple huckleberry pancake breakfasts for longer than most of the members have been members. It’s become a community tradition that is pushed in the local newspapers and on banners in town.
It’s All For Aviation Scholarships
A restaurant hard by the airport, the Three Mile Store and Café, and two local grocery stores, Safeway and Super 1, donate all of the food. The FBO, Northern Air, opens up one of its big hangars, clears out the airplanes and invites everyone inside. Every cent of the money raised goes to the Chapter 757’s scholarship fund. Every cent. That means that the Chapter will give something north of $7,500 in scholarship money at the end of this season—mostly to local high school kids who want to learn to fly.
Before coming to the Bonners Ferry EAA breakfasts, I was used to seeing fly-in breakfasts dominated by the over the hill gang. Not here. Half of the people working the food line and clean up are high school age—they’re the ones who have received scholarships or are seeking them. They want to be around airplanes and airplane people. Their enthusiasm is contagious.
By the 8:00 am start time we’ve already served 20 meals of eggs, sausage and huckleberry pancakes. Around here if you aren’t early for a meeting or appointment, you’re late. There is a line of another 20 waiting. The hangar door has been opened and the fog has surrendered to the sun, so everyone can watch airplanes and make appropriate OOH and AAHH noises as landings are greased or well, um, you know. One of the kids has noticed that the picnic tables outside are still wet from yesterday’s rain, has dashed in, found some paper towels and dried off the tables and benches. They are immediately snapped up, best seats in the house.
Time To Enjoy The Airplanes
At 9:00 there is a lull in arrivals, so I take a short break and walk out to the ramp. I see the Husky with its large, backcountry tires, on one of the tiedowns. His patience with the fog was rewarded. There’s a line at the fuel pump. Northern Air does its best to keep its fuel prices among the lowest in the area, an extra incentive for pilots to come to breakfast. Three glistening Lake Amphibians have arrived in a group, the pilots and passengers are chatting animatedly as they push their airplanes forward for their turn at the pumps. A friend of mine parks his Steen Skybolt close to the hangar and instantly attracts a crowd. Kids are excitedly showing their parents the different airplanes on the ramp. I hear snatches of conversations ... “This is a Cessna 172; I’ll be taking my lessons in this one once I’m done with ground school ...” “That’s a RV-8, it’s so awesome ...” "That tailwheel Cessna 150 has a straight tail and Omnivision; I didn’t know any of those were made ...”
I went back inside and gave the first-string pancake chef a breather. Things started slowing down shortly after 10:00, a half hour before the official end of the breakfast, so I was tasked to start cleaning off tables and folding up chairs that were no longer needed. About 10:15 it was decided to shut down the griddles as there was no one in line. Naturally, one family came hurrying in at 10:35, apologetic at being late and asking if they could still get breakfast. Kambiz and Gene, old hands at this, had cooked just a little extra, so the full plates were handed to the latecomers amid smiles all around.
As I folded up and carried tables into the storage room, I listened to the sound of airplanes taxiing out and departing for the flight home and thought about what had just transpired. Around 200 people had eaten their fill of huckleberry pancakes while totally immersed in an aviation experience. About $1,400 was raised—and EAA Chapter 757 will give the money to help some kids who want to learn to fly more than anything in the world. To me, that’s an incredibly good thing.
Later, walking out to my car, under a brilliant, now cloudless, sky, I couldn’t help but think—I don’t have a silver bullet to save aviation at the grassroots level. I don’t think that there is one. I think that creating a future for general aviation means those of us who care for it have to find ways, large and small, to keep building up general aviation. We have to build general aviation a brick at a time, so that it becomes a solid structure created by many hands that will last long after we’re gone. Today, at a fly-in breakfast organized by some passionate pilots and run by those pilots and the kids who have received, or hope to receive, aviation scholarships, I think several bricks were cemented firmly into the foundation.
Rick Durden holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation, is a CFII and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.
I’d stepped into the pilot’s lounge at the virtual airport after finishing up with my last student of the day. I didn’t think anyone was still in the building and I wanted to make sure the coffee maker was off—it has a tendency to create enough smoke to fog the room by morning if left unattended. There’s supposed to be an automatic shutoff but I can’t help but suspect that it has developed a personality and gets upset at being ignored and retaliates when people leave of an evening.
The switch for the caffeine dispenser was firmly in the off position, so I started to turn toward the door, intending to head home. As I did so, I noticed that there was a copy of Last Plane Out, John Ball’s novel of aviators, personal integrity and what it means to have a passion for flight that defines one’s life, lying on the table nearby. I’d been deeply moved by the book when I’d read it as a teenager. Ball’s pilots were people who were a cut above ordinary because of their commitment to the highest standards in practicing their craft, readiness for—and ability to handle—the unexpected, an instant willingness to help others and a refreshing humility in their carriage. They had pride in their skills, without hubris, and the visceral understanding that no matter how much they knew, there was always so much more to learn. I grabbed the book and sat down to reread some of my favorite parts.
An hour later it was dark outside, and I was still engrossed in the book. I looked up at the sound of footsteps in the hallway. Karver came through the door and said, “Hey, how you doin’?”
“Great. What brings you here so late?”
“I just landed, put the plane away, saw your car in the lot and came in here looking for you.”
“Oh, man, what did I do this time?”
“I was hoping to talk to you about flying into AirVenture. I read that painful column you wrote after a friend of yours was killed in a crash just short of the airport on the Fisk arrival and you were furious at the stupid pilot stuff you’d seen that year. I’ve printed out the NOTAM for Oshkosh, read it, underlined and highlighted stuff; I’ve read just about everything I can find on flying in and watched a boatload of YouTube videos. But I’ve still got questions.”
“Karver, I think you’re doing all the right things. I’m not sure I can add anything to what you’ve done.”
“Look, you’ve flown into Oshkosh for over 45 years, right?”
“Something like that, but I missed a few years.”
“Yeah, so what do you think is really important about flying in?”
That stopped me for a moment. Karver is in his early 20s. He’s had his private ticket for something over six months, has already gotten a tailwheel checkout and is one of those poor schmucks who has lost is soul to flying. He reads everything he can, and I think I learn more from him when we talk than he does from me. As I thought, something came to me.
Pilots and Drivers
“I think flying into Oshkosh is where pilots are separated from airplane drivers.”
Karver looked puzzled, “What do you mean? I’ve got a tee shirt that says ‘Airplane Driver.’”
“Yeah, I guess the old insult has faded with time. When I was learning to fly, the worst thing you could say about a pilot was that he ‘drove’ an airplane. It meant that the person thought in only two dimensions, not three, had no pride in turning a collection of aluminum and rivets into a living, flying entity, probably couldn’t fly both straight and level at the same time and when he approached an airplane at its tiedown, the airplane hung its head in shame at having to put up with the ham-fisted machinations of the uncaring human that was about to turn the ignition key.
To me, Oshkosh is aviation’s Mecca. True pilots fly to Oshkosh. They make pilgrimages to Oshkosh. Hundreds of pilots save for years just to be able to afford to fly in one time. Think of what you’ve done already to prepare—you’re not making a $100 hamburger flight. You’re going to fly into the busiest airport in the world. You recognize the seriousness of the endeavor. That’s what pilots do.
“I think that’s the most important thing a pilot can do—recognize and respect the seriousness of flying into OSH during AirVenture and act appropriately.
“I think that means being determined to have your game at its highest level from the moment you’re 50 miles from Ripon on the arrival all the way through when you’re 50 miles out on the departure. To me that means having taken a flight review within the last month or so and being truly able to hold 90 KIAS within plus or minus five knots (and knowing the power setting you’ll need) as well as altitude within plus or minus 50 feet while tracking directly over a set of railroad tracks. That’s an objective standard. If you can’t fly to that level of precision, either practice until you can or don’t fly in to OSH. It seems to me that part of respecting the seriousness of flying into OSH is having the maturity and judgment to honestly evaluate yourself and say that as much as you want to fly in this year, you aren’t going to.
“I think it means knowing the NOTAM cold and having made and thought all the way through alternative plans for what you’re going to do if the airport closes or the weather comes down and you have to divert.
“I think it means planning the flight so that the leg into OSH is no longer than 1.5 or 2 hours so that you and your pax aren’t dealing with biological pressures that will adversely affect your ability to do the pilot and judgment thing that you’re going to need to do.
“I think it means little things such as respecting weight and balance because you may have to maneuver your airplane dramatically right now and over gross or out of C.G. may mean you can’t do it. It means making sure that you are comfortable flying a tight, right-hand pattern and landing on a spot. It means prepping your passengers for sterile cockpit, how to look for traffic and how to tell you about it. Oh, and it means learning that when taxiing on grass—as you’ll do at OSH—you need to hold the yoke all the way aft to maximize prop clearance and minimize the chance of dinging your prop.
“I think it means tamping down the greedy, game-the-system behavior we’re encouraged to have in today’s world and being ready to show consideration for other pilots and airplanes. A little courtesy goes a long way on the Fisk arrival. I keep thinking of the powerful southern lawyer I worked with years ago who was invariably a gentleman while doing his absolute utmost to win his case. He taught me that courtesy should never be misinterpreted as weakness. As pilots, the courtesy we show to another aircraft in coordinating an arrival may just keep all involved alive. After all, when we’re in flight, we’re playing for keeps—being a jerk can have fatal consequences.
“I think it means recognizing that the world is watching when we fly into OSH and we have an obligation beyond just ourselves to arrive not only safely, but with some degree of élan.
“Karver, I feel strongly about flying into Oshkosh. If a pilot doesn’t have respect for what it involves, he or she should absolutely not be doing it. I have nothing but contempt for anyone who would try it without reading and being prepared to follow the NOTAM—I firmly believe that they have caused fatal accidents because they cost air time as ATC tried to sort them out and that triggered a reaction elsewhere that could have been stopped had the frequency not been tied up.
“Every one of us who flies in to OSH is on stage. Our errors are shouted to the world. We’ve had years where there were so many accidents that there was pressure to make radical changes to the arrival procedures that would reduce them to one airplane every few minutes. We have the most liberal general aviation regulations in the world—and there are those who would like to see them far more restrictive. A few crashes at OSH could go a long way toward making that happen. I firmly believe that one inconsiderate pilot could ruin what we have at AirVenture.
“We are pilots. Because of what we have learned and are able to do, we have come to know the glory of the sky. We make up a tiny fraction of one percent of the population. That sets us apart in many ways—one of which is a duty to recognize how fragile the privilege of flying ourselves can be, and to do our utmost to do nothing that would potentially ruin it for others. I think we have an obligation to demonstrate at the epicenter of the world for aviation passion—Oshkosh—that we take the process of flying into that hallowed place seriously. I think we have an obligation to show the world that we are pilots, not some lesser being.
“Karver, I wish I could go with you to AirVenture this year. You’re committed to doing your best and I know you will fly the Fisk arrival like a pro. I wish I could be sitting next to you when you hear that ultimate accolade a pilot can receive—after you fly that tight pattern, land on the colored dot and as you angle off the runway onto the grass the controller says, ‘Nice job. Welcome to Oshkosh.’”
Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.