Archive for the ‘Aviation’ Category

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I remember it like it was yesterday: April 30, 2001. This was the date of commercial multi-engine checkride, the last hurdle between me and the beginning of my career in aviation. I was scheduled to be evaluated by Adam Berg. I didn’t know much about Mr. Berg going into the office, but in the briefing with my instuctor the day before, I was told that he was some kind of Navy pilot and if I could get him going on about the war, I’d probably coast right through my checkride. It sounded like pretty good advice, so the next day I walked through the door with that in mind.

It started out ok. Not great, you know, but ok. He asked me a few questions about my experience and the airplane, all pretty standard stuff. In turn I countered asking about some of his experiences in aviation. He mentioned that back when he was younger he was in a movie or two and that he did some flying in the war. One look at my senior examiner left little question as to which war he was referring. It was all going according to plan. He also went on to note that the airplane We were flying for the checkride that day, the aesthetically uninteresting PA-23 Piper Apache, was one of the aircraft his squadron used for training in 1941. Really? That is interesting (read: aw, shit). The inquisition resumed with more questions about airspeeds, operating weights and single engine operation. I was treading water alright, but I was nervous, so I tried to put the focus back on him. Because I’m a genius, I asked him if he ever had the opportunity to fly the P51 Mustang. I mean, here’s a WWII pilot, right? And who wouldn’t want to fly the Mustang? I think we all know the answer to that. Navy Pilots. As soon as the words left my lips, I knew I had made a horrible mistake. In that moment, which seemed to last a lifetime, the entire tone in the room changed. He revered me with a look that would have made even the hardest Marine uneasy, and said, “I don’t fly Airforce airplanes, son. Lets go do some flying.” I swallowed hard, grabbed my gear and headed for the airplane.

What followed were two of the most harrowing hours I have ever spent in the skies over Southern California. To say he gave a very thorough and exacting checkride would be the most grievous of understatements. Stalls, were followed by steep turns; the VMC demo was followed by single engine ops, multi and single engine approaches, go around a and landings. It seemed as though every maneuver started and ended with, “Who told you to do it that way?” And my personal favorite, “What are you doing now?” It was pretty clear to me that this checkride could probably have been going better. One hour and forty five hard fought minutes later, with the ride over, we landed at Van Nuys and taxied back to his office. The cockpit was silent. I was absolutely positive that I was going have to come back and endure another two hours of unrelenting abuse from a man who had obviously forgotten more about aviation than I was likely to ever know. I set the brake and as the engines came to a stop, I braced for the inevitable. My eyes straight ahead, I could see him in my periphery getting his things together. He stepped out of the airplane, stopped and said, “You fly a pretty good airplane kid. Secure it, and I’ll meet you upstairs.” He let the door close behind him and I sat there a moment, trying to figure out what in the hell just happened. My composure somewhat regained, I chocked the airplane and went up to his office. He signed off my logbook, shook my hand, said, “Fly safe,” and sent me on my way.

I didn’t realize until much later how established an actor, and no kidding war hero Adam Berg actually was. For his service in combat against the Japanese Navy in 1944 he was awarded the Navy Cross. It reads as follows:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Adam William Berg (NSN: 0-278522), United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism in operations against the enemy while serving as Pilot of a carrier-based Navy Dive Bomber in Bombing Squadron FOURTEEN (VB-14), attached to the U.S.S. WASP (CV-18), in action against the enemy fleet in the vicinity of the East Philippine Sea on 20 June 1944. Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Berg’s attack against an enemy fleet oiler was pressed home to a low altitude with determination and skill in the face of intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire. He scored direct hits with his bombs and contributed heavily to the destruction of the enemy ship. During retirement his excellent airmanship and coolness were instrumental in frustrating enemy fighters which made repeated attacks against his division. While returning to his own forces, his fuel exhausted, and he was forced to make a water landing in complete darkness. Both he and his air crewman escaped injury and were eventually rescued. His courage and skill were at all times in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.
General Orders: Commander 1st Carrier Task Force Pacific: Serial 0583 (September 27, 1944)
Action Date: June 20, 1944

So, let me see if I understand this: Dropped bombs on an enemy ship, scoring direct hits; fought off scores of enemy fighters; ran out of fuel and performed a water landing (read: crashed in the ocean) at night, and survived. Yeah, this guy was the real deal.

And I asked him if he flew the P51. Genius.

As far as his movie career goes, I’ll just leave this here:

Adam Williams IMDB

It too, speaks for itself.

I was saddened to hear that he passed away in 2006. Another loss from a generation to whom the country, if not the world, owes so much. I think of that day often, as a funny story about how I was chewed up and spit out by a tough old fighter pilot turned actor, turned in my face FAA designated examiner. He didn’t give me an inch, but when the dust settled and the engines cooled, I felt as though I had earned his endorsement.

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For Brian

Posted: June 23, 2013 in Aviation, Life

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There’s a saying in this community. It’s a sad one. They say, that if you work around airplanes long enough, you know someone that has died in a plane crash. For me this was true nearly ten years ago when my friend Jesse crashed an airplane in Missouri in the middle of the night due to a dual engine failure. The factors leading up to the crash reflect poorly on my friend, but regardless of what happened, at the end of that night, he and his co pilot were dead, and their family and friends were shattered.

Tonight, my friend Brian is going through something similar, only far far worse. He watched two very close friends of his die in a plane crash at an airshow. True, they were doing something they loved, but there is no comfort in that. He had flown that airplane, and performed the very maneuvers that went so horribly wrong today. Talk about hitting close to home. “It could have been him,” my wife said. Thank God it wasnt, I thought. My heart goes out to my good friend, and I simply can’t imagine the pain he is feeling.

So, in light of this, let me tell you a story about how I came to meet Brian and why I hold him in such high regard. It was several years ago while I was an overworked, occasionally hot tempered regional airline captain in the middle of a very bad day. It had been a long day of several legs in and out of Newark. I finally got in sometime in the evening and was very much looking forward to catching my commute home and putting an end to the week. As I walked off the jetway I was met by Eileen the crew tracker in Newark. Eileen was a sweet lady, but when she showed up at the gate, you knew something was about to go terribly wrong. The reassignment was a trip, as second in command, to Fayetteville Arkansas, and then a deadhead to Houston. It was going to go into my days off, and quite frankly I was pissed. The last place on earth I wanted to go was Arkansas, and even less so as SIC. But, as Eileen so aptly reminded me, there was no choice, this was what I was doing.

So there I am, heading for the gate absolutely beside myself furious that I’m losing days off for some last minute trip to some ridiculous corner of the earth, sitting in the wrong seat… As I approach the podium, I see a couple pilots standing around chatting, as pilots often do at the gate before the plane gets in. As I get closer, they seem to stop their conversation and fix their eyes on me, steam obviously coming out of my ears. “Hey dude,” Brian says, “Uh, how’s it going.” I tell them (read: ranted) my tale of woe. The other pilot, to my surprise was actually riding the Jumpseat, and offered to take the leg off my hands so I could go home. We tried through the proper channels, but alas, he wasn’t legal to fly it. I was stuck. The light hearted response was, “Dude, that sucks, but lets just get this over with.” Fair enough.

The flight down, with three captains in the cockpit, was surprisingly pleasant. Mostly because Brian set the tone well. He was relaxed in manner, telling jokes, and some story about a delta pilot with a stuck mic, which was hysterical, although, all these years later, I can’t remember it well enough to retell. Probably without knowing it, he was able to get me to relax and forget about how awful my day had been.

We stayed friendly after that. We would exchange pleasantries in the briefing room when we ran into eachother, and a year later when I moved on to a different company, we stayed in touch. In the years that followed, when he was in town on an overnight, we would get together and catch up over dinner or a few spent cartridges at the range. I don’t think I ever thanked him for being the kind person that he was that night, and not judging me for being an asshole. Because, you know, guys dont do that stuff…. The truth is, back then, I’m not sure I would have been capable of the same.

We dont talk as often as we used to but it doesnt change the fact that Brian is a good friend. And a better person. I didn’t know his friends that passed away today, but if they were anything like him, the world is an emptier place. Its true, it wasnt Brian in the cockpit, but since I heard the news, I’ve been thinking about my buddy who has seen more than his share of hardship, that he didnt deserve, and who certainly didn’t need to watch his good friends perish this afternoon. I hate the saying, “Our thoughts and prayers are with them.” But truthfully, my thoughts are with my friend, and the families of his friends. For someone who was kind to me when I needed it, I can only hope that he is able to find some comfort in knowing his friends and family are behind him during this tragic time. He more than deserves that.

Of horseshoes and hand grenades

Posted: May 31, 2013 in Aviation
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(The above image is a vast exaggeration of the aircraft and events contained in this short narrative)

It was a close one. Uncomfortably close. I’m not sure just how close it was, but it must have been, because aside from the feeling in the pit of my stomach, everyone who saw it from the ground thought we were done for.

That’s pretty fucking close.

It started like any other flight, in the briefing room. I met my First Officer, and we discussed the particulars: full flight, airplane is in good shape, the weather, not so much. “It’s windy as hell up there with low ceilings,” I tell him, “and the alternate doesn’t look much better. But, it’s right down the runway, so it should be fine.” I didn’t love the situation we were about to fly into. “You’re just worrying too much,” I told myself. I signed the paperwork, and headed for the gate.

The preflight, boarding and departure were unremarkable, as were the next two and a half hours heading northeast into the night, towards our destination of Halifax. As we closed in on the destination, I pulled up the weather to start the descent and approach planning. The ceiling was about 1200 feet and the wind was still blowing hard down the runway at over 40 knots. Peak gusts were recorded at 45. Ok, this is gonna suck a little.

It was my leg to fly, so I briefed my partner on the approach and we talk about the missed approach if we can’t get in. Fuel is tight, so we’re gonna have one shot, maybe two before we head to the alternate. The alternate, who’s weather was now a little worse than where we’re going. Something to keep in mind.

The initial descent was smooth, just picking up the occasional bump. The fun began as we descended below 2000 feet. The occasional bumps became continuous. The light chop started to feel more moderate. As advertised, the wind was right down the runway. “It’s not so bad,” I thought as we came up on 1200 feet and broke out of the clouds. Then the shear started. Airspeed fluctuations of 10 to 15 knots above and below our target speed added to the unsettled approach as we descended below 500 feet.

I notice that I’m off the glideslope… Half a dot high and climbing. Ok, just take a smidge of power out to correct. Just. A. Smidge.

At the same moment of my power correction, the wind sheared. The abrupt change in direction and velocity caused a dramatic loss of lift that I can only describe as a feeling of “the bottom falling out.” Simply put, the airplane stopped flying. I’m not sure what the altitude was. We hadn’t crossed the threshold of the runway yet so we were higher than 100ft, but not by much.

In a brief second of panic, I thought to myself, “I am NOT crashing this airplane tonight.” While that might seem a bit dramatic all these years later, at that moment time, I assure you, it felt appropriate.

Without the time to verbalize it, I slammed the thrust levers forward and pitched up slightly. I called for the gear and flap retraction on schedule while the airplane clawed it’s way back into the sky.

Once stabilized in the climb out, we call the tower and explain what just happened. They issued us vectors for the downwind to try the approach again. I looked at the fuel and called up the weather for the alternate. It had gotten even worse, and we only had enough gas to get there and maybe make one approach. Not the best option.

I briefed the Flight Attendant and the passengers, then I looked to my partner, who was all business.

“Alright dude, heres the deal. We dont have the gas for another missed. No matter what happens, we’re landing this airplane.””Roger that.” Is the reply. ” Let’s do it.”

The second attempt is a near carbon copy of the first. The chop turned into moderate turbulance below 2000 feet, getting progressively worse as we closed the distance to the runway. Below 1000 feet, again, the shear worsened. I’m a little high again. Instead of taking power out, I pushed the nose down and get back on the glideslope. The runway is getting bigger in the windscreen and I fight the airplane closer to the ground. The threshold lights pass beneath us and I pulled the thrust back to idle. The airplane solidly thumped to the pavement, I deployed the thrust reversers and applied full braking.

The airplane came to a stop on the runway and I caught my breath. My FO slapped me on the shoulder and as I remove my hands from the yoke. I noticed they were shaking.

“Dude, that was messed up.” I heard from the right seat.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t want to talk about it.” I said as I taxied us off the runway.

The tower called to get a pilot report, and informed us that a 767 blew a nose wheel tire on the same approach two hours before we got there. It occurred to me that I could have used that information just a little bit earlier.

The gate sent greeted us with a look of shock on her face. “You guys almost crashed!” she said as she opened the door.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

I stood in the doorway to see off our 50 customers and I noticed something I hadn’t before. Every one of them looked me in the eye, and thanked me. Each and every one of them. It caught me off guard. We didn’t do anything special. We just made the best of a challenging situation.

We gathered our things, and headed for the cab to take us to the hotel. “Holy cow, you guys almost went in! What happened?” the cab driver exclaims. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Is the reply, still not quite ready to deal with what just happened.

We got to the hotel and I said to my FO, “Meet me in the bar in twenty.”

It was well after midnight when I got up to my room and sat on the bed. I pulled out my phone, and called my fiancé.

I made it to the bar just before they closed, and a minute or two before my FO. I ordered four shots of scotch, the good stuff, gave two to him and we talked over the whole thing. We got pretty lucky that night. We had never worked together before, but he was an outstanding pilot and crew member, and we both defaulted to our training to get the airplane on the ground without any injuries or bent metal.

That makes all the difference when it counts. And that night in Halifax, it counted.

Amazing Grace

Posted: May 31, 2013 in Aviation
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I have no idea what time it is.

It’s late… No, its early. I’m so screwed up.

Lighting flashes in the distance and the ride gets progressively worse. The radar is showing the green and yellow blobs that indicate that we’re going to be picking our way through some weather. Meanwhile, the Rolls Royce engines dutifully carry us northbound over the thousand miles of ocean between us and the eastern United States.

I check my watch, it’s 0430. The indiglo numbers confirm my fears, it’s both late and early at the same time. Awesome.

I look out the window and there are no stars. Lightning flashes again, this time from below. Yeah, that’s what I thought, we’re in it. St. Elmo’s fire lights up the windscreen and the ride gets worse. There’s no indication that deviating off course will help. We’ve got to ride it out and wait for it to get better. Sometimes the only option is to do nothing.

The radio is quiet. The HF comm is shut down between reporting points. It’s one of the few benefits to working at this ungodly hour of the day. The nav computer keeps us steadily on course as I scroll through the system pages. Values and tolerances are normal. All green, no red. Life is good.

Ani Difranco is the chosen playlist for this segment of the flight. It’s an old album my sister gave me a long time ago. One of my favorites.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound….

The ride smooths out a bit and we break through the clouds. The northeast quadrant of the sky reveals the first grey blue indication of the coming dawn. It’ll come fast, stretching its long arm of daylight across the horizon. I’m going to need my sunglasses soon. That’s gonna suck.

The equal time point sequences and I enter in the next points. Any emergencies before the ETP and we go Bermuda. Passing that point means no matter what, we go to Boston. That suits me just fine.

The lower part of the horizon is dark orange now, backlighting the storms off in the distance. A lightning strike reaffirms my contentment at heading in the opposite direction.

0500. Two hours, seven minutes to go. A look at the TCAS shows traffic a thousand feet above and converging. I look out to the east, and a Delta 767 passes overhead leaving a contrail behind it. On the ground, a thousand feet seems like quite a distance, but up here, it can feel pretty close.

I can see where the sun is going to break the horizon. Directly on a 090 heading. How about that? Theres an anvil cloud out there with a deep orange outline. Orange streaks invade the shades of blue above it marking the imminent sunrise. That’s the spot.

I’m not the poetic sort, but I will say that there is something special about witnessing the sunrise. Everyone sees the sunset. It’s just as pretty and it happens just as often. The difference, I think, is that so few people see the sunrise, and even fewer get to see it from here.

I get up to stretch my legs and the stiffness is a reminder that just 24 hours ago I was waking up on top of a mountain. I passed up watching that sunrise for an extra hour of warmth in my tent. I later felt that I might have missed something kinda special up there. This morning makes up for it. I haven’t seen the sunrise from my seat in the cockpit in a couple months. The experience is not lost on me.

As expected its nearly time for the sunglasses. A light overcast layer obscures the the new sunlight light from my weary eyes. Half of the sky is bathed in a pinky orange hue that is indicative of the new day. I was reluctant to come in tonight. Working a redeye is hard, but sometimes these small moments make it a little better.

The VHF comm crackles to life as Ani is winding down. Radar contact. The ETP has passed, and now it’s Boston or nothing. Just over an hour and we’ll be on the ground. There’s a lot to do between now and then.

Ok seriously, where did I put my sunglasses?