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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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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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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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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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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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Green Side UP?!

Well, I made it. Last Monday I had my checkride, and I passed, so they gave me the keys. I took the bird out for an hour and a half, all by myself.

It was really great. I had smooth and precise airwork all through the flight, and flew four of the best landing patterns I’ve ever done. Too bad nobody was there to see it!

Last week I got in two more flights doing “precision aerobatics.” It was really a blast, but I didn’t much like what it did to my stomach the first time around. I didn’t barf, but it really didn’t take long before I was feeling pretty lousy, and I didn’t get to do everything we wanted to do on that flight.

But the second one was much better. I still haven’t seen an Immelman yet, but we slugged out an aileron roll, three or four wingovers, at least three tries at a barrel roll, a loop, a half cuban eight, and a demonstration of a spilt-S.

My next flight is a solo. This time, instead of practicing landings at an outlying field, I’ll have an hour and a half to work on my aerobatic maneuvers. I’m not allowed to do a split-S, an Immelman, or a spin, but pretty much anything else is fair game. I was scheduled to fly it today, but it was too windy for solos. Better luck tomorrow, I guess.

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Socked In

Through some combination of bad weather and bad scheduling, it’s now been a week since my last flight.

I’m scheduled to fly after lunch today, but they’ve also scheduled an occluded front and some thunderstorms to be passing by about that same time, with low ceilings and poor visibility. I’m not very hopeful, but at least I’ll be able to go in today and get some academic work done. Being scheduled to fly also means I don’t have any other duty or watch scheduled for today.

This is getting kind of frustrating. I felt like I had a really good flight last Tuesday. But at this point, my skills have a very short shelf life, and the only way to reinforce and improve them is to fly daily, if possible. That’s the way the program is designed to work. The other unfair thing is that my grades are competing with others who HAVE been flying these flights every day.

Since it has been seven days since my last flight, if the clouds miraculously disappear and I DO go fly, I’m eligible for an optional warm-up, which means the grades don’t count. I’m going to take it, if I can, and hope that my next graded flight will be before the end of the week. If not, I guess I can always do another warm-up next Tuesday, too.

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Time Flies When It’s Flying Time

It’s been five flights and almost two weeks since my last post.

Mid-stage fams are definitely tough. Gauges “malfunction” nearly every time the instructor knows I’m checking them, and my highly reliable Pratt and Whitney PT6A-25 turboprop engine “fails” at least 4 times every flight, sometimes less than a thousand feet off the ground. My gentle, stable trainer somehow manages to get into a steady-state spin and an approach-turn stall every single time I fly. But through a miraculous combination of my embryonic skills and the patience of my instructors, the engine relights, the houses in my windscreen stop spinning, and the trees start looking small underneath us again.

All this is part of a great effort to get me ready for my first solo flight in the T-34C. Before they give me the keys, they’ve got to break me down, teach me what I need to know to fly the plane out of any disorienting situation, and then reinforce that knowledge until I can do it automatically and mechanically while spinning toward the dirt at 12,000 feet per minute.

I have only two more flights before my “check ride.” On that flight, an instructor I’ve probably never flown with before will make the final judgement as to whether or not I should be allowed to take the plane out on my own.

I feel like things are finally starting to come together for me. I had a good flight yesterday. I don’t think I had a single one of the “uh… I don’t know”-moments that had plagued some of my previous flights. It’s still not perfect, but I’ve got two more flights to smooth out as many of the bumps as I can. The first one is scheduled to brief at 5:30 tomorrow morning.

The solo itself is a tremendous rite of passage in the aviation community in general, and the fraternity of Naval Aviation in particular. Most of my squadron mates say it gets a lot easier after the solo- even that the instructors start treating the students better. In any case, it should be a huge boost to my modest aviator ego… ;)

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Sunrise, Sunset

What a week. I didn’t fly once. We had lousy weather almost every day, the lousiest of which was always at exactly the time I was scheduled to fly. On the one day of the week where the weather was actually great for flying, I was scheduled to brief at 4 in the afternoon. With an hour and half to brief, and sunset at 6:14, half of the “day contact” flight would have been in the dark. When I brought this to the attention of the Flight Duty Officer, I was told to come in an hour or so early so I could get my flight in. But the airplane and instructor were still on their same schedule for the previous flight. Things went exactly according to plan and the brief started at 4. The instructor concluded that we couldn’t get enough training done to justify the flight, and we cancelled. That was the most frustrating part of the week, since they basically scheduled me for a flight that was impossible to fly, even if the weather was perfect (which it was).

It’s been nice to have the time off, but I’m ready to get back to doing what I’m here to do. Tomorrow will make 10 days since my last flight.

I went camping with my scouts again on Friday. The weather is really getting nicer for sleeping outside. It was cool enough to make a nice big fire and I even had to wear a jacket for a while in the morning. The Florida winter is settling in… sure a lot better than the real winter we had in Albany!

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Cloud Surfing

It doesn’t look good for me to go flying today. Nothing but rain clouds for a hundred miles in any direction. But we’ll see. Maybe I’ll at least get the briefing done so next time I can just go fly.

Friday, on the other hand, was a wonderful flight. It started off looking like we might not be able to do everything we wanted because of a broken cloud layer around 5,500 ft. There were reports of lowering clouds, decreasing visibility, and a squall line north of the field. But after careful analysis of the weather situation, my instructor decided to launch. Montgomery was reporting clear skies, so we would head north.

He called it right. Once we punched through the squall line, the visibility got better. We found a hole in the cloud deck and headed for it. On the first attempt, we were about 400 feet of altitude shy of making the hole, so I did a level 360-degree turn to accelerate. On the second try, we were charging toward the base of the cloud hole at over 150 knots, and we vaulted through into the bright sunlight on top of the clouds. Our working altitude put us only a thousand feet or so above the tops of most of them, but we had to turn frequently to avoid some of the taller ones.

On a clear day, it sometimes seems like we’re just hovering up there. But with all the clouds close to us, there was a definite sensation of speed. “Cloud surfing” is one of the great pleasures of flying.

When our “high work” was done, it was time to head down. The presecribed method of descent for this flight was my introduction to the “spin.” A spin is basically just an aggravated stall that results in autorotation of the airplane at about 150 degrees per second and a descent rate of 12,000 feet per minute. I’d been dreading it, but I was feeling good on the airsickness meds the doc had given me, and it was time to face the music.

The hole we’d come up through was now about three miles wide. We set ourselves up over it at 9,500 feet. Power off, 30 degrees nose up, rudder at the shakers, full rudder at the stall… The airplane flopped over on its back to the right and settled about 45 degrees nose down with the whole world spinning around us. After a few turns, my instructor put in full left rudder, and in a few more turns the airplane stopped spinning. It took at least five more turns for my head to stop spinning, but I’d survived, and I felt fine. Now, suddenly, we were only at 6,500 feet.

The clear skies over Montgomery had by this time worked their way south into our practice area. Our northernmost outlying field was totally clear and beautiful. After about 7 laps around the bounce pattern, we headed home, back into the goo. By the time I left the base, though, the skies were clear all the way down to Pensacola, and we enjoyed absolutely beautiful weather this weekend. Life is good!

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