Pushing the Envelope

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Sometimes, pushing limits is the responsible thing to do.

Most of the time, the most sensible way to fly an airplane is right in the middle of the “envelope” of its performance capabilities. Operating in the middle gives the widest margins of safety in normal circumstances. However, being a responsible pilot means being capable of using the aircraft safely throughout its entire envelope. For lower-performance aircraft, the envelope is pretty small. As performance increases, the corners of the envelope get farther apart, and being comfortable hitting them sometimes requires getting out of your comfort zone.

The best part of my job is flying brand-new airplanes. The Seneca V is my favorite, primarily because its performance envelope is much larger than the Cherokees and Seminoles I fly. That’s a polite, technical way of saying it flies higher and faster. The Seneca sports a pair of turbocharged engines capable of delivering maximum rated power continuously up to an altitude of about 20,000 feet, meaning the airplane should have no trouble at all climbing to its certified ceiling of 25,000 feet.

Most of my Seneca flights are short local flights, and I don’t fly nearly as high or as fast as the aircraft is capable of going. Two weeks ago, I got a chance to take a Seneca on a long cross-country trip. The airplane was equipped with every possible option, including an oxygen system. Even though the headwinds would be stronger at higher altitudes, the aircraft’s increased performance would compensate for them. I wouldn’t gain any time by flying higher, but I wouldn’t lose any, either.

I had only flown at altitudes requiring oxygen once or twice in flight school, and had never flown in the “flight levels” above 18,000 feet. It was definitely outside of my comfort zone, but it was within the capabilities of the airplane, and there were no other risk factors. It was a daytime flight, in good weather. It was just me in the airplane, so passenger comfort wasn’t a consideration. If things didn’t work out, I could fly lower. I knew I needed the experience, I didn’t know when I’d get another chance, and it was hard to imagine getting a better opportunity to try. It was time to push the envelope. I filed my flight plan for Flight Level 240, or 24,000 feet, the highest westbound altitude within the certification limits of the aircraft.

The Seneca didn’t skip a beat on the long climb, although running two engines at cruise climb power with full rich fuel mixture for that long consumed quite a bit of fuel. Once I levelled off, I was thrilled to see cruise speeds slightly better than the performance charts predicted. Headwinds were as advertised, and I ran calculations to be sure I would still be able to make it to my destination with a comfortable fuel reserve.

At high altitude, the air is less dense, meaning air molecules are literally fewer and farther between. An airplane depends on air molecules to generate lift, and therefore must go faster to stay airborne. But the airplane also relies on air molecules to produce power and to cool the cylinders of its engines. Running engines too hot for too long can cause damage and shorten the service life of expensive equipment. At 24,000 feet, the Seneca’s two $60,000 engines were working hard and getting hot. They were approaching the edge of their envelope.

There are three ways to cool off an airplane’s engines. First, the pilot can enrich the mixture of fuel to air. This puts more fuel through the engine than it can burn completely, and the extra unburned fuel cools off the cylinders, at the expense of some additional fuel flow, which decreases range. Second, the pilot can open flaps on the engine cowls, allowing more air to pass over the engines. This provides excellent cooling, but also creates drag, which slows the airplane down and reduces range. The third option is to reduce power by backing the throttles off, which also slows the airplane down. I used a combination of all three and after some fine tuning of the engine controls, got everything running smoothly at more comfortable temperatures at the expense of about six knots and an additional gallon per hour of fuel flow.

The headwind weakened during the second half of the flight, and I made it to my planned destination with well over an hour of fuel left. The ride was smooth and the view was spectacular from 24,000 feet. The oxygen mask was a little inconvenient, and talking on the built-in microphone resulted in radio transmissions that were sometimes difficult for air traffic control to understand.

Working the airplane, particularly the engines, as hard as I did is not something I’m going to do on every flight. Most of my future flights in the Seneca V will be done at lower altitudes that don’t require supplemental oxygen, squarely in the middle of the comfort zone for both the airplane and its occupants. But I’m glad I explored the envelope on a nice day when I wasn’t under pressure from weather or passengers or a tight schedule. I don’t know what my future missions will require, but now I’ll be able to use the capabilities of the airplane a little more confidently. And maybe, on nice days, I’ll continue to gently push the envelope.

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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

This week, I depart on my fourth annual pilgrimage to EAA Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. For the aviation industry, it’s one of the most important trade shows on the calendar. For me, it’s a time to remember my first trip as an important turning point in my career.

In 2011, I went to Oshkosh for the first time, almost by accident and pretty much on a whim. My boss encouraged me to take a couple days off to check it out. I wouldn’t have been able to afford the trip on my own, but a friend, who wasn’t even an aviation geek like me, decided it would be fun to come along on a road trip and agreed to split the costs.

So after work on a Wednesday, the two of us hopped in my car and drove for six hours. Thursday we got up early and drove for twelve more hours, arriving in Oshkosh just in time for a thunderstorm. We decided to have dinner at Taco Bell while the storm blew over. By the time we got back to the campground, the rain had turned the roads into mud so deep I didn’t dare stop my car until I was sure I wouldn’t have to move it again. We found a patch of dry-ish grass and hurried to set up camp before dark.

We spent the next two days checking out the show. What I saw, and the people I met, changed the way I saw aviation. For the most part, Oshkosh is not a gathering of rich people and their expensive toys. It’s ordinary people who love flying and FIND A WAY to make it part of their lives.

One night, the guys at the campsite next to us had made too much food, so they invited us to come over and share. They were from Indiana. They had ordinary jobs and ordinary incomes. One guy owned an old airplane that was experimental because of a new engine or something. It was cheap for him to fly because he did the maintenance himself, and it ran on car gas. He wasn’t waiting for a big raise or a winning lottery ticket so he could “afford” to fly. He was finding a way.

In many aviation circles, you hear about how the rising price of flying is driving people away from general aviation, as evidenced by the shrinking pilot population. At Oshkosh, I met people who seemed to be beating the system. I learned that flying doesn’t have to be expensive if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty and thinking outside the box.

So for me, Oshkosh is a celebration of the spirit of aviation itself- the spirit of finding a way, and of finding MY way. Less than two months after my first visit to Oshkosh, I found myself unemployed. I found a way to get my Flight Instructor certificate, and I found a job at Piper Aircraft that involves flying on a regular basis. This will be my third year working the Piper booth at Airventure. It’s hard to imagine I won’t continue to find a way back each year to the place that gave me the resolve to save my soul when I could have easily given up on aviation.

And that’s why, if you’ve been around me the last couple of weeks, you may have noticed me whistling “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

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Baby on Board! Flying with the Whole Family


Last Saturday was the third time my wife and I have taken our infant daughter flying in a small airplane, and I think we’re finally starting to get it figured out.

There’s no good reason why a baby can’t come flying with you. There are, however, some extra considerations necessary for a small passenger. With a little preparation, the personal airplane can become a weekend getaway machine for the whole family.

Most car seats are also approved for use in aircraft by the FAA. If your seat is approved, there will be a sticker on it that says so. Seatbelts work about the same in airplanes as they do in cars, so there shouldn’t be any problem getting the seat secured, but it’s a good idea to check it out in advance, just to make sure.

We’ve found it works best to put the baby behind the pilot’s seat. In a Cessna 172, the pilot usually slides the seat forward after getting in. This means the non-flying parent in the right seat can slide back, reach behind the pilot, and have good access to baby in the back seat.

Sun protection is big deal, because airplanes are necessarily built like tiny flying greenhouses in order to afford the pilot a good view. Make sure you’ve got some way to give your passenger shade without blocking the windows.

Hearing protection is a must for everyone in the plane. Infants’ ears are especially susceptible to permanent damage. Earplugs are great, and easily available, but good luck getting them to stay in! And once they’re out, they’re a choking hazard, so you’d better have someone in the back seat to watch the kid the whole time.

This was our major find for last week: for $25 we got youth-sized protective earmuffs, that fit our 10-month-old baby just fine, from the gun department at a sporting goods store. She wore them the whole flight without a fuss.

Speaking of ears, remember babies haven’t had the opportunity to learn the Valsalva Maneuver, and may not be able to clear their ears as well as grownups during climbs and descents. Make sure your baby doesn’t have any kind of sinus blockage before flying. This is important for adults, too. Descents are harder on sinuses and ears than ascents, so plan to come down slowly. I’ve used 500-700 feet per minute with the baby and never had any problems. Sucking on a bottle will also help a baby clear her ears during an approach.

If you have any questions about physiology, talk to your flight surgeon.

For a small child, especially one who can’t see out the window, bring plenty of distractions and an extra parent to tend the child in flight. Single-pilot, single-parent operations probably aren’t a good idea until the kids are old enough to take care of themselves a little bit.

With a little extra planning, flying can enrich the lives of your entire family. An airplane can take you places and show you things you can’t see any other way. And what could be better for a pilot than sharing the things you love doing with the people you love most?

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Dreams

It’s the first gray light of a cool spring morning. Green grass is stained silver with heavy dew and thin mist sits low in still air.

The only sound at the little airport is rubber tires rolling slowly on wet asphalt as I push the Piper Cub out of its hangar. Its glossy doped fabric wings and body are brilliant warm yellow against the dark pavement and shady trees.

Wooden propeller blades spin into a swishing blur as the little Continental comes alive, carefully parting the sacred silence without shattering it. In a few moments, we’re flying along low and slow over the countryside, circling and swooping over pastures and trees as the rising sun chases the last shadows of night from the land.

We’re in no hurry. When we finally land a little less than an hour later, the sun is full up and the airport is wide awake. The mechanic greets me as I push the Cub back into its hangar. He’s a good mechanic, and friendly, and I’m glad I hired him a few years ago.

Once the kids are off to school, my wife joins me at the airport. She sits behind the desk at our FBO, and she does a great job taking care of everyone who stops by or calls into our little place.

There is work to do today. This morning, a man is coming to look at and test fly an airplane I’m brokering. A light twin on a cross-country will be stopping for fuel and lunch. And I’ll have a couple of students to fly later in the afternoon. In between all that I’ll be replacing burned-out runway lights, mowing grass, and doing other odd jobs to keep the field running smoothly.

Of course this never happened. Not yet, anyway. I’ve never flown a Piper Cub, and my job right now is far from Professional Hangar Bum and Manager of a pastoral airport. It’s just a dream.

To be a pilot, though, is to be a dreamer. Moving people or goods by air may be justifiable economically, and sometimes necessary to reach remote locations. But to become an aviator is a solemn act of romantic impracticality. It requires devotion, effort, and fiscal expense far beyond any reasonable expectation of return.

Economists use the term “opportunity cost” to describe what one gives up by choosing one thing over another. Thinking this way, there’s always something better to do than be a pilot. Most of the time, this logic prevails. I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve met who tell me “I’ve always wanted to fly, but” it’s too expensive, they don’t have the money. The list goes on, but the central factor is there was always something else, something more practical, to spend their money on. Life gets in the way of dreams.

But what, precisely, is the opportunity cost of a dream?

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Love and Airplanes

This is a very belated Valentine’s Day post.

A long-term relationship with aviation is a lot like a romantic involvement with another person. There’s attraction, a first date, and excitement.

Some flying relationships don’t last forever. Priorities change, the passion dies, and the inevitable drain of financial and emotional resources doesn’t deliver the same excitement anymore.

For a few lucky people, though, the love of flying develops like a steady marriage. Even though it’s the hundredth, or thousandth, time seeing the rolling shadowy forest canopy from above, or the moonlight sparkle on a black diamond ocean, or a blazing sunset aloft turn the whole world into glowing liquid gold, there are subtle differences each time and no day is ever quite the same as any other.

There are still storms, delays, breakdowns, and even emergencies bringing moments of sheer terror. But the happy marriage is based on understanding instead of raw attraction, commitment instead of bare promise.

Heading home into one sunset, high in smooth cold air, with baby finally sleeping peacefully in the back seat and wife looking contemplatively over the world almost a mile below, it would be easy to take the moment for granted. I could think it is no longer beautiful because the novelty has worn off and it’s not all that unusual for me to be taking my wife and daughter for an airplane ride. But in so doing I would miss the greater truth.

Instead of taking it for granted I savor it now so I can have it again later, in my memory, when the bills and the office can’t be avoided and the winds and rains keep me away from this peaceful place in the sky.

I am lucky to have this peculiar set of skills, which lets me see the sun sink in molten gold and spin the whole world around me on the tip of a banked wing. I’m luckier, still, to have a wife whose love is of understanding, and whose only caveat to my flying is that I take her with me.

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The Battle of Chesapeake Light

“Three minutes,” I said over the ICS to my crew chief as I pushed the nose of our helicopter over, accelerating low across the ocean for the final assault on our objective.

The bad guys had been using the Chesapeake Light platform as a transfer station for smuggling weapons and personnel between Cape Henry and the Eastern Shore. I was leading a flight of two MH-60S helicopters to insert a team of Navy SEALs and take down the platform.

I pulled the trigger on my cyclic control stick to talk to my wingman over the radio. “Two from one,” a short pause. “Okay, winds are a little off to the right. So we’ll go up the left side and set up sniper cover. You come up on the right and drop your guys. You slide out, and we’ll drop ours.”

“Roger.”

The platform grew bigger and bigger in the windscreen. My copilot, in the right seat, was now flying us toward the left side. When we were close, he popped the nose up into a quick-stop, settling in a high hover so the sniper in our right door would have a clear shot at the deck.

“Platform is clear,” he said over the radio. A second later, I saw my wingman’s helicopter slide up the other side, nose up as it slowed down and settled in low over the platform to insert the SEALs via ropes. This took only seconds, and then they were coming up and away from the platform to cover us while we made our drop. So far, so good.

Then, trouble. “Rambo,” my crew chief said, using a pre-briefed codeword to indicate he’d spotted an armed crew member on the platform.

I froze. I was mission lead. What should we do?

More trouble: We were getting shot at. I was still frozen. More trouble: Our sniper was hit. We had to get out of there, but my wingman had crept slowly forward, and was now hovering almost directly in front of us.

“Sir, permission to open fire,” my right-side machine gunner asked over the ICS. We could shoot back. Duh, Dave.

“Open fire!” I said.

“No!” said my copilot, who was actually the aircraft commander, and my instructor on this training flight. Firing the imaginary machine gun with half a team of imaginary SEALs on the deck was a bad idea. We would have been shot down because of my slow response, anyway.

Both helicopters flew away to reset and try the scenario again, this time with the other helicopter in the lead. Even after four practice assaults on Chesapeake Light, we’d both done poorly enough that our instructors determined we’d need to do the entire flight again before it could be signed off. It was a huge letdown. We’d spent hours and hours over several days studying and preparing, and we’d have to do it all over again, except much better.

For my infant daughter, learning to pull herself up to standing was only half the puzzle. She’d stay happily on her feet, until she lost her balance or got tired. Then she’d fall, usually hitting her head on the way down. If she stopped trying to stand, she’d never hit her head again. She also would never learn to walk. Instead of quitting, she learned to put herself back down again without injury. Once the fear of falling was gone, there was no longer any reason not to stand up.

Fear of failure must be the main reason why people don’t try things they would otherwise want to do. Living with failure is easier than living without trying. Just ask my daughter: Falling down means you stood up in the first place.

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The Day I Went Pro

I didn’t become a professional pilot the first time I got paid to fly. It wasn’t even when I got my shiny gold wings.

It was a sunny September morning at NAS Whiting Field in Milton, Florida. I had just passed my instrument checkride in a TH-57C helicopter, the Navy’s orange-and-white version of the ubiquitous Bell Jet Ranger. My coveted “wings of gold” were basically in the bag, and in less than two weeks I’d officially have the right to wear them on my uniform. I’d been going through intensive flight training for a year and a half, and today I was getting the keys to my own turbine-powered helicopter for a few hours.

Even though the weather was beautiful, I filed an IFR flight plan to New Orleans Lakefront Airport. The FBO there would let us take a car (Jaguar!) out to lunch while our helicopter was refueled for the trip home.

In the other pilot’s seat there would be no instructor. Instead, I had a “winger,” a recently-graduated student awaiting transfer, to tune the radios and act as a safety observer.

IFR clearance copied, radios and navaids tuned. Cleared for takeoff. Hover-taxi, five feet in the air, across the yellow hold-short lines, and swing the tail around, nose into the wind. We skidded slightly sideways to the right to catch the centerline. It was against the rules to slide through a turn like that. I didn’t care. It was just a little bit, and I was in charge today. No instructor around to complain about it. We were off to New Orleans! Cajun food and a Jaguar were waiting for me!

I can’t remember any of the small talk I had with my winger copilot that day. But what he said as I slopped onto the runway was like a sledgehammer to the head of my pilot-ego.

“Dude, don’t slide.”

It bothered me all the way to New Orleans. It wasn’t even a graded flight, and I felt like I’d blown it. The rest of the mission went perfectly, food and sporty luxury car included. Even so, nothing I could do would remove the stain of my carelessness from my memory.

Finally, on the way home, I understood the problem. It wasn’t wrong because I’d done badly, but because I could have done better. I’d violated one of the most basic rules of flying: Instead of flying the aircraft, I’d let the aircraft fly me.

I got sloppy because I didn’t think anyone would notice. I realized my own knowing I’d flown well was more important than an instructor saying so on a grade card.

I became a professional pilot when I stopped flying for the guy next to me and started flying for myself.

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Land of the (Unknowingly) Free

When Americans speak with fond passion of our many freedoms, most overlook an absolutely stunning freedom more easily available in America than anywhere else in the world: the freedom to fly.

Most people associate flying with freedom. Most people also have no idea just how attainable the freedoms of flying are to them. Many people I meet are enamored with the idea of soaring effortlessly through the atmosphere, and the obvious freedom to move around the map quickly. But flying offers what I believe is the greatest freedom of all: freedom from, in the words of Antoine de St. Exupery, “the tyranny of petty things.”

Travel on the ground is controlled by roads and lanes, stop signs and traffic lights. As we cower in our automotive exoskeletons of metal and glass, buildings and billboards tower over us. A journey of only a few miles can take hours in heavy traffic.

Leave the ground, by only a few hundred feet, and the perspective changes. Individual people disappear. Tiny cars follow one another like ants along thin trails of pavement. The works of man, which dominate the life of the ground-dweller, fall into obscurity beside mighty rivers, soaring mountains, and the thick carpet of verdant forest.

Life in the sky is lived in the eternal, absolute, self-existant terms of wind, cloud, speed, and altitude. Here, at last, the mind, body, and soul of man are truly free from the tyranny of petty things.

According to the FAA, there are presently 5,180 public-use airports in the United States. Of those, only 587 are certificated for scheduled commercial airline use. If you’re going anywhere, chances are there’s a public-use airport closer to your home than the nearest commercial airport, and another one closer to your actual destination than any you can buy a ticket for. If your trip is less than 700 miles or so, even a modest personal airplane will get you door-to-door in less time than the airlines.

Because we are Americans, we can have this privilege cheaper and easier than anyone else in the world. For an initial investment of around $10,000, almost anyone can get a private pilot’s license. A mere $500 a month thereafter will keep you flying two or three Saturday mornings every month. You can even own, insure, maintain, and fly your own small airplane for less than many middle-class American households spend on car payments.

How is it, then, that as of 2008 only two tenths of one percent of Americans were active pilots?

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Pilot in Command

I’m going to get this blog rolling again by telling some stories from important flights I’ve had in the last few years. By “important” I just mean the flight taught me something about flying or life in general. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few of these aerial “ah-ha” moments, especially recently.

This past Thanksgiving we were visiting my wife’s side of the family in the Salt Lake Valley. The weather was pretty good, and I somehow managed to talk them all into thinking it would be fun if I got checked out in an old rental 172 and took everybody for rides. Tuesday I did the rental checkout, and afterwards went for a quick spin with my wife, and then with her parents.

Thursday, in addition to being Turkey Day, was my nephew’s thirteenth birthday. I’d arranged with his parents to take him and my wife’s brother for an airplane ride to celebrate. My plan was to fly from South Valley (U42) to Spanish Fork, on the south side of Provo.

On Wednesday night, as I thought about the flight the next day, a nagging voice came to my mind with startling clarity. “What gives you the right?” it said. “Are you out of your mind, Dave? You’re expecting your sister-in-law to trust you to take her oldest son up in that little deathtrap? You hardly ever fly those things. You don’t know what you’re doing. You could get killed, or worse, get him killed! Then what would you say?”

It didn’t take me long to answer the irrational doubt, but in the process I had to say some things I needed to hear. “Of course we’re not going to get killed,” I said. “I am a professional pilot. I may not get as much experience as I’d like in this particular model of aircraft, but it doesn’t matter. I am a pilot, and the Cessna is a machine. It will do whatever I tell it to do. I have trained myself for this. I am the Pilot in Command.”

I spent a good deal of time that night poring over charts and satellite images, until I was certain I could find my way to the Spanish Fork airport and back without any help. I planned the altitudes at which I would fly to avoid the invisible upside-down wedding cake of controlled airspace surrounding Salt Lake International Airport. I planned the point at which I would call the control tower at the airport in Provo to ask permission to fly through its airspace. I called the Spanish Fork airport to ask if there were any unpublished notices I needed to be aware of. There would be no surprises. Even though I had never flown to the Spanish Fork airport, it would be familiar enough to me when I got there.

The flight went exactly as planned. I knew how the aircraft would perform, and together we flew precisely the route I decided the night before. Had the engine stopped at any point during the flight, we would have been able to land safely because I knew what to do and I was always ready for it.

My passengers’ trust in me was not misplaced. The little airplane did not fly fifty miles to a foreign airport and return safely by chance. I flew it. I ignored the nagging voice of doubt, warning of unknowable danger, because it was wrong. It said, simply, “Stay home. Flying is too dangerous, especially with someone else’s kid on board.” I said again to the doubt, as I clicked off the master switch and listened to the gyros in the instrument panel spinning down, “See? If I had listened to you, I would never have known what it felt like today to glide down a final approach and stroke my wheels like paint brushes on this runway.”

Flying is not nearly so dangerous to the soul as a life of cowardice, wallowing in the security of the familiar ground.

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The Slacker Returns

After a long hiatus, I think I’m going to give this a try again.

Life in the last few years has taken a few interesting turns. I’ll try to bring in some stories to fill the gap, but I think it’s best to start back up again with some more recent events.

Here’s where I’m at now: I fly MH-60S helicopters. I live in Virginia Beach, and I have a baby girl. Those are the biggest changes since I last wrote, and should probably help make sense of the posts I hope will follow this one.

Thanks for stopping by. Watch this space!

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