Preparation

When I plan a long flight like my trip from New Orleans to the Bahamas, a lot of people ask me what kind of preparation I have to do, so I thought I’d share it here as my first in a series of blog posts about my trip.

Before I begin, a note for those of you who are not on Facebook. You can still view my public page and see the pictures I posted along the way during my trip. Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/ErinSeidemann?ref=bookmarks

When people ask me what I have to do to prepare for a trip like this, I joke in reply that for a trip for which I have no set plans, no reservations at any hotels, and usually only a vague idea of a few places I want to see, it sure still has a TON of preparation! I guess the biggest difference between flying yourself somewhere internationally and hopping on a commercial jet is that I’m the one stuck with all the weather watching, fuel stop planning, and route planning whereas that’s all done behind the scenes and without so much as a thought from most of us who jump on commercial jets.

Add to that the fact that any flight over water comes with its own set of considerations, and there’s more to the planning process. Then there’s the whole international paperwork thing. All this leaves me wondering for at least a week as I get close to the flight if I’ve forgotten anything since it’s not like there’s a list I can follow of what I need to do or take care of. There are lists for private pilots who want to fly internationally, but that only covers a small part of the planning, and each destination has its own considerations. And flight planning has changed so drastically from the last time I flew to the Bahamas back in 2009 that even if I had made a list then, only a small amount of it would still apply.

So here goes. First, I go through my Bahamas pilot guidebook to see where I want to go (you can buy this from most online pilot shops if you are interested, and it’s a must for flying in the Bahamas). On my last trip there, I flew into Bimini, Andros, Eleuthera, Abaco, and Grand Bahama and often took a water taxi from those islands to stay on others. So I pretty much covered the upper half of the islands, purposefully skipping over the too-touristy-for-my-tastes island of Nassau. Hence, this time, I wanted to go to islands farther south than I had been before. The Exumas have always had a great reputation for being uncrowded and offering great scenery. And since I plan many trips or stops based solely on the catchy name of a place, of course I’d have to visit Rum Cay just so I could say with a straight face that I had flown to Rum Cay (even though I actually consumed no rum while on Rum Cay). Past that, I had no other plans. If I wound up with extra time after going to a few places in the Exumas and not having rum on Rum Cay, I’d look up what else looks good that’s close.

And because all of my flying relies more heavily on the weather than any other factor, there is no such thing as saying “I’ll be here this night and then there the night after.” My dad asked me if I could give him an itinerary. I told him I could give him a list of places I wanted to go and hotels I would stay in if there’s room. That’s truly the best I can do. Of course, I’d update my parents once I get somewhere and if the weather looks like it’ll cooperate for whenever I want to move on to the next island.

Getting out of the U.S. First, I needed a fuel stop between here and the eastern coast of Florida. And, no, I do not fly directly over the Gulf of Mexico in a single engine plane, so by following the coast, it lengthens the time it takes to get there rather than going direct. I could maybe possibly maybe make it to the eastern coast of Florida on one tank, but I’d be coasting in on fumes, something I try rather hard to avoid. Plus, I like to get out, stretch my legs, and pee more often than once every five and a half hours. So I planned a fuel stop somewhere in Florida that would be about four hours of flying. And I had one picked out just by name until I saw that there was a nearby airport where the fuel was way cheaper. Since going on these paradise vacations alone can get super expensive, I’ll take a savings on fuel when I can! And these handy, dandy new flight planning apps (I use ForeFlight and LOVE it!) can show you fuel prices on the map with the touch of a button (they’re not buttons anymore, so that term needs updating). From there, it was just picking out a place to stay on the coast that would put me at a good spot to launch for where I had planned to clear customs since the first place I wanted to stay does not have customs (another consideration as there are only a small number of “airports of entry” in the Bahamas where you have to clear customs before going on to another destination). I picked Pompano Beach since I hadn’t been there before, and that’s reason enough for me! It had lots of cheap hotels close to the airport. At first, I had thought of making the whole flight to the Bahamas in one day, but with sunset at 5:00 now in December, the flying day isn’t very long, and I didn’t want to have to feel rushed while filing my international flight plan, a requirement for crossing the ADIZ (air defense identification zone) when flying in or out of country. So I decided to stay the night in Florida to not be rushed, get some rest, and then clear customs in Andros and fly to Exuma in the morning, still leaving me plenty of time once in Exuma to load up my foldable bike, find my hotel, and hopefully beachcomb before sunset.

Now that that was all settled, I needed to not only look at the places I wanted to go but also figure out if I would have enough fuel to make it to many of the stops that do not have fuel. And what if I wanted to just fly around and sightsee one day instead of going from point to point? Would I have enough fuel for that plus getting to the next airport that did have fuel? While fuel stops in the United States are almost anywhere along your route of flight and therefore aren’t much of a consideration given their abundance, this is not so in the Bahamas, especially once you get into the less-traveled islands, i.e., the ones I like to go to. For example, of the six public airports in the Exumas (there are more for private use only), only one of them has fuel. And Rum Cay, even farther East, doesn’t. This most definitely increases the amount of planning since it’s not like when I fly around the U.S. and just pick a fuel stop right along my route. And since I didn’t know what the winds would be doing one or two weeks from now, I always assume a headwind when calculating fuel in places where it’s not available everywhere.

Once I figured out I’d have enough fuel to get from place to place including one day of flightseeing (my new term for aerial sightseeing) up and down Exuma to take pictures, now I could somewhat figure out how much time I could spend in each place. Though, admittedly, this may change as I go along. If I don’t feel comfortable somewhere (which happened once on my last trip to the Bahamas) or if I just can’t find enough to do, I may leave a place after a day when I had planned to stay for two or three days. This is why I may end up with extra time at the end. Or I may find a place where I want to move in and never leave.

And because it had been five years since my last trip, I had to refresh my memory on all the paperwork necessary for leaving and reentering U.S. airspace. Of course, that process had also changed from my last time. I already had my radiotelephone operator’s license from last time. And a couple of months ago, I remembered to pay for and order a U.S. Customs and Border Protection decal for the plane. I packed my passport early so I wouldn’t forget it. Once in the Bahamas, I’d need to get a transire form and have it stamped at each different island I flew to. Then I’d have to turn that back in to customs before leaving. Also upon leaving, I had to plan to clear customs in the U.S. at one of only eight airports in Florida where it’s allowed for general aviation flights.

Then came the packing and figuring out what I needed. Even though it’s often unpleasant to consider the worst case scenario, as pilots we must do so to be safe and prepared in case it does happen. I still had my over-water survival kit from my last trip there. I checked everything in it and even reminded myself of all the little things included in it, most of which are tied to the bag so you don’t drop them in the water: a strobe light, a signaling mirror, whistle, ink dye for easy location in water, two drinkable water packets, a multi-tool, a space blanket, flashlight, light stick, compass, sunscreen with insect repellant, lip balm, and small first aid kit. Mine was packed and assembled by Randy Boone of Aviation Survival Technologies (astoverwater.com), and I believe it’s a necessity to have this or something very similar for over water flights.

Over water survival pack

Over water survival pack

 

It's amazing how much stuff fits in there.

It’s amazing how much stuff fits in there.

I wear the survival pack around my waist during the entire flight. I’ve read too many stories about ditching an airplane in the water somewhere, and they say something like “We had a survival pack, but it was in the back of the plane and we couldn’t get to it, so it sank with the plane.” That would not happen to me. I also attached my SPOT tracker to the survival pack to ensure that if I have to exit the plane, the SPOT tracker exits with me.

My SPOT tracker.  One of those things you hope to never have to use in an emergency.

My SPOT tracker. One of those things you hope to never have to use in an emergency.

The SPOT tracker is a satellite GPS that has a button to press for check in. It will text and email anyone I saved in my account to say I’m okay and will give lat/longs of where I am with a link to a map. My mom found this feature to be very reassuring when I was out of cell service range and could not text to let them know I had landed safely, and there are many places in the Bahamas that I couldn’t text from. The SPOT also has a button for SOS emergency, which will notify the nearest emergency services with my location and notifies my saved contacts. I put new batteries in my SPOT tracker and tested it to make sure it was working.

I packed an extra headset in case my primary headset malfunctioned, which it did multiple times on my last trip to the Bahamas while I was in the…cue the Twilight Zone music…Bermuda triangle (not joking). I made sure I had all the bells and whistles for my iPad flight planning app, ForeFlight, including my GPS receiver to place on the dash of my plane that connects via Bluetooth to my iPad to show a little airplane icon for where I am, and my yoke mount so it’s easy to see the moving map on my iPad. This was another thing that didn’t exist last time I went to the Bahamas – it was all paper flight planning all the time. ForeFlight, or any flight planning app, takes an enormous amount of time out of flight planning, and while I’m not one to always have the latest and greatest technology (actually, I’m usually the last and am currently very happy with and hope to never have to get rid of the “steam” gauges in my airplane), I must admit that ForeFlight is a godsend. Like when I had already planned a fuel stop based only on the catchy name of the airport but then saw (from the fuel prices listed on the map in ForeFlight) a much cheaper alternative very close by, all I had to do was replace that waypoint on my flight plan and it recalculated everything (distance, time enroute, fuel burn). Ain’t technology grand?

Then came the normal packing that goes with any trip no matter the mode of transportation. Clothes, money, toiletries, maybe some books. But I remembered a quote I had read a while ago that proved COMPLETELY true on my last trip to the Bahamas: “When you’re packing, take half the clothes and twice the money.” Last time I had way too many clothes even though I thought I had packed light and not nearly enough money (so thank god for credit cards). And if I weren’t a runner, I could get away with packing half of my already halved planned clothing. But I can’t run without my running clothes (especially a good supportive running bra, and my ladies know what I’m talking about!). You just can’t substitute anything for proper running clothes like you can for other activities. And that’s why I decided that I can use shorts and just a few shirts for everything else while I’m there and just wash them in the shower and hang them out to dry when I needed to. This, in my mind at least, made up for all the extra room that my running clothes took up. But last time I went, I did find myself lacking something cute to wear when I unexpectedly met a hot Italian restaurateur. But, hey, if I happen to meet a guy again, he’d have to like me in my shower-washed shorts and shirt (side note: I did meet a guy, so the joke was on me for not having anything cute to wear). If I packed for every possible contingency, I’d need a bigger plane.

One of the most limiting factors of general aviation flight is how to get where you’re going once you landed at your destination. In the U.S., many airports have either a courtesy car or car rentals available. But you can never count on that stuff unless you call ahead. And I knew this didn’t exist where I was going. My parents gave me a foldable bike after my last trip to the Bahamas when I complained about how hard it was to get around. So I figured I’d pack a small suitcase of clothes, and whenever I landed, I’d take out a few days of clothes (and running clothes), stuff them in my backpack, and I could strap that to my back along with my flight bag and still be totally bike-going.

But to counterbalance the inconvenience of not always being able to get around easily, one of the many joys of general aviation is that you can take whatever you damn well please (like except for drugs and stuff like that). This meant I could take a travel bottle of shampoo, some aerosol cans of OFF and sunscreen, my pepper spray in case I felt unsafe, and my Swiss Army knife that does everything short of making coffee. Every time I packed one of these items, I smiled thinking of all the TSA signs prohibiting such things. HA! My plane! I think I’ll take another knife just because I can. Oh and water bottles! I won’t go thirsty!

Having said all this, the question is: Is all that preparation worth it? The answer is a resounding YES! Think of it like this: you are in charge of your own trip. You go where you want, when you want. You like a place? Stay an extra night. Stay an extra three nights. There is no airline reservation waiting for you that puts the period at the end of your trip. The entire trip is a sea of possibilities.

This Is Your Brain on Reduced Oxygen

You know those questions on the written tests for any aviation rating about hypoxia?  Ever wonder if they were exaggerating a might about it?  I’m here to tell you it’s no joke, kiddies.  The FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) brought its handy-dandy Portable Reduced Oxygen Training Enclosure (PROTE) to The Ninety-Nines 2014 conference here in New Orleans.  And, naturally, yours truly was crazy enough to sign up for it!

In order to go into the PROTE chamber, you need two things.  First, you must attend a two and a half hour mandatory classroom session that qualifies you for the ground training required by 14 CFR section 61.31(g) to operate pressurized aircraft above 25,000 feet.  Second, you must have a current airman’s medical certificate.  Something that requires a two and a half hour class and they want to make sure you’re in pretty good health before they rob you of precious oxygen?  Where do I sign up?!?

Here’s the blurb from the FAA’s website about the PROTE: “The Portable Reduced Oxygen Training Enclosure is a portable altitude training system that simulates altitude by reducing the oxygen percentage of the air. Advances in technology have yielded a new generation of commercially available training devices capable of producing hypoxic environments at ground level (normobaric) by altering the fraction of ambient oxygen, thus avoiding some of the risk factors associated with altitude chamber training.  The system’s operational control is a microprocessor that monitors two oxygen sensors, a carbon dioxide sensor, and an atmospheric pressure sensor. It uses this information to calculate the simulated altitude and, in turn, to control nitrogen concentrating air units, CO2 scrubbers, and vents (as needed) to maintain the enclosure at the desired simulated altitude setting. Although it is based at CAMI, the PROTE can be taken to locations wherever needed for your personal hypoxia experience.”

My own personal hypoxia experience?  Why does that sound creepy to me?

The ground school portion was actually quite interesting and interspersed with videos or audio of hypoxic situations.  The scariest one was an actual air traffic control recording of a Lear jet pilot who was so deep into hypoxia that he.  could.  only.  talk.  one.  word.  at.  a.  time.  And even that was clearly a struggle.  The controller recognized the symptoms of hypoxia of slurred speech and difficulty comprehending and cleared him for a lower altitude, and his speech and comprehension quickly improved.  If you’re interested, here’s the link.

Another video that really made me question if this was a wise decision was of three military men undergoing reduced oxygen experimentation.  One of them was asked to pick cards off a deck and say out loud which card each was (link).  The simulated altitude level was 35,000, and after the first few cards, he kept repeating “Four of spades!” for every subsequent card, then had a hard time picking up a card, then was told to put his mask on or he will die and was past comprehension at that point and did not put his mask on.  Someone had to do it for him.  No, he didn’t die.  But they were trying to see if he’d comprehend such a scary order.

Yet another scary video (do I really want to do this?!?) showed someone in rapid decompression simulation at 47,000 feet.  At that altitude, you have about three to five seconds to get your mask on.  The guy reached for the mask the second it came down but was still unable to put it on himself despite his immediate reaction.

Well, we’d be at a breezy 28,000 feet.  So no worries.  Right?

One wall of the reduced oxygen chamber and the oxygen separators on the right

One wall of the reduced oxygen chamber and the oxygen separators on the right

The outside of the chamber with the simulated altitude setting and actual altitude on the inside.  One of the FAA employees stands here to monitor it while another employee must accompany each group inside.

The outside of the chamber with the simulated altitude setting and actual altitude on the inside. One of the FAA employees stands here to monitor it while another employee must accompany each group inside. You can also see the color wheel in the upper left.

There are many things that can affect how quickly symptoms of hypoxia manifest themselves: fatigue, sickness, and medication seem to be the biggest ones.  And since I was almost falling asleep while standing up waiting to go into the chamber, I figured I’d be lights out pretty quickly.  Always competitive, though, I wanted desperately to be the last one to put my mask on.  Or, at the very least, I wanted to beat one of the instructors, this guy Mike, from the flight school where I leaseback my airplane.  He’s all muscle-y and young, so I thought beating him was a good enough, if unrealistic, goal.

We watched as other groups before us went in.  Some donned their masks right away.  Some slowly slipped away while trying to complete the written task sheet.  Some seemed to last forever.  In fact, those who live at higher altitudes did the best in the groups I watched that day.  No surprise there.  Also not boding well for my flatlander self.

Finally it was time for our group of three to go in.  There is a small antechamber that you enter from the outside that serves as a midway point so that you’re not opening up the door of the room at 28,000 feet and letting all that oxygen in.  We file in the antechamber as quickly as possible so as to minimize the time the door is open, and then we do the same once that door is shut and the door to the main chamber is open.  We had assigned seats and were told to take the oxygen mask from the side of the chair and put it in our laps so that it’d be close when we needed it.  The FAA guys warned us that we may even feel a symptom or two right when we walk in, tingling in the fingers often being the first symptom felt.

Me?  Nope!  Feelin’ fine!  No tingling.  I feel great.  In fact, I’m thinking this is some sissy shit that’s been totally blown out of proportion.  Maybe I’ll even go for a run in here.  I’ll show these people how a distance runner copes with physical tests!  We were given this sheet so that we could check off any symptoms at each minute interval, and then there were some cognitive tasks we could do if we wanted.  I took one look at the math problems before we went in and had already decided to skip those since it would take me a minute to do them in normal conditions and I didn’t want my only memory of this experience to be futilely toiling away at multiplication.

The written tasks sheet they give you on a clipboard to complete while inside

The written tasks sheet they give you on a clipboard to complete while inside

There was a color wheel hanging on the wall that they told us to periodically look at since the colors would degrade as hypoxia set in.  The FAA guy told us to first just sit and absorb everything.  Think about how we’re feeling.  Look at the color wheel.  Do the red and orange look different?

Dude, this shit looks fine.  Stop being so dramatic.

I guess I got comfy while I was there because the next thing I know, I have my oxygen mask on.  Oh cool!  I’m so glad I was able to get it on myself instead of being so stupid that he had to do it for me.  I also noticed when he was in front of me that his face went from bright orange like he was an oompa loompa to normal color.  But wait!  Does Mike have his mask on already?  Yes!  Ha!  But then I look over at another friend in there.  She’s still doing the damn cognitive stuff and writing stuff down.  We’re still friends, and I say this with nothing but love, but when I looked up and saw her still chillin’, my first thought was “Bitch.”  And she just kept going.  The FAA guy asked her to stick her arms out and show him a left turn, a right turn, a climb.  They do this to see if your hands are shaking.  Hers weren’t.  Each new task she did, I was like “Bitch.  Bitch.  Bitch.”  And she kept going.  Meanwhile, I’m noticing how color is starting to get clearer.  Funny how I hadn’t noticed it getting unclear before.  Whatevs.  Finally she slowly dons her own mask without help from the FAA dude.  Man, that sure didn’t last very long!

We go outside the chamber, and they tell you to sit down so we can talk about what happened.  FAA guy asks how long we thought we were in there.  Felt like a couple minutes to me.  He says just over five minutes.  Hmm.  Well I’ve never been good at timing things.  And I knew time would fly since this is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing.  Then he asks Mike if he remembers what happened.  Mike says his O2 level plummeted after we stood up and sat back down three times.  Oh yeah.  We did that.  I had forgotten already.  Mike said he was just about to pass out when the FAA guy put his mask on for him.  Then the FAA guy kneels in front of me.  “Do you remember that I had to put your mask on for you?”  “Haha!  No you didn’t!  I got it on just fine!”  I was laughing.  He wasn’t.  Lying bastard!  We’ll see about that because I took video from the inside with my phone and had a friend take video from the outside.

I sneak over to a corner of the room to look at the video.  I’m all chill and writing down my heart rate and O2 saturation level like they told us.  Oh yeah then there’s that thing when he told us to stand up and sit back down three times.  I sorta remember doing that.  Then, well, I’ll let you see for yourselves (huge thanks to my best friend Stephen Occhipinti for putting this video together!).

What?!?  I was seriously crestfallen!  I don’t remember anything at all beyond standing up and sitting down.  Nothing until my mask was on.  I don’t remember him having to put Mike’s mask on.  I wish I could have seen that.  Maybe I did.  Who knows.  I don’t remember trying to convince him that I was fine.  But it’s good to know I’m so confident even when I’m out of my mind.  Confidence will get you everywhere!  Like passed out.

My completed sheet.  ACED IT!  NEXT!

My completed sheet. ACED IT! NEXT!

One of the FAA guys said when they use the PROTE, it’s like dealing with drunk people all day.  I can believe that!

This is your brain.  This is your brain on reduced oxygen.  Any questions?

 

 

I Keep Taking the Weather with Me, Part 2

I got to the airport around 8:15.  I was just starting my preflight when the examiner approached the plane.  We chatted a bit and he asked a few questions while I went through my preflight.  We were also checking out the cloud situation as the entire flight would have to be conducted under visual conditions.  With the cloud deck getting thicker, making it harder to find a hole to get through to get to the clear above, I was staring to doubt we’d be able to finish today.

I was still walking around the outside of the airplane and had only stuck my head inside for a second to lower the flaps and turn on the lights to check them, so I hadn’t paid too much attention yet to what was on the inside of my airplane.  My examiner, who often gives checkrides to other people in my airplane and therefore knows it well, said “Oh this is a bad omen.”  Let’s ponder this for a second here.  Probably number one top thing you don’t want to hear your DPE say is “You failed.”  Probably number two and not a distant one is “This is a bad omen.”  I tried to discern what he was looking at when he said that, thinking maybe it had started to storm off in the distance again or something.  I didn’t see anything so I asked nervously, “What?  What?  What’s a bad omen?”  “Your hula boy is gone.”  I gasped!  Hula boy!  I looked up at the top of the instrument panel where hula boy usually bobs gently as I climb around the plane for preflight.  No hula boy.  I immediately ran to the pilot’s door so I could look around the inside of the plane.  Surely he just fell off his perch?  We both scoured the inside of the airplane, under the seats, in the side pockets and seat pockets.  No_hula_boy.  I’m not joking when I tell you I very seriously considered cancelling the checkride right then and there.  We pilots are a superstitious bunch, and he was right: this didn’t bode well for things to come.  But then I thought of how many times we’d already had to reschedule and all the sleepless nights leading up to this.  Extremely reluctantly, I decided to press on.

We got in my plane, and after going through the checklist for starting the plane, it was time to turn the key.  Crank crank crank crank.  No start.  Sigh.  Okay, so we’re going to be like this today, huh, Orion?  Orion has never liked a hot start.  And lately he’d been getting worse to the point that, the day before, one of the instructors had to call out a ground power unit to help start it before he ran the battery down by cranking it too much.  So this, at least, was not a surprise.  And I’ve had trouble hot starting it in the past.  I just figured it was a matter of trying different throttle and mixture positions before it would catch.  Both of us tried and tried to get it started.  No go.  Oy.  Stress level now approaching maximum.  I looked at where hula boy should have been and wondered if the “bad omen” was turning out to be a bad checkride.

Well, at least by this time, the other plane that I needed to use for part of the checkride, since part of it had to be conducted in a plane with retractable gear and controllable-pitch propeller, had arrived.  So we agreed to go use that one first, do what we needed to do in it, and hopefully by then my engine would have had enough time to cool down so we could get it started.  The examiner said “Well, this’ll definitely give you something to blog about!”  Two observations here: 1. He knew me too well, something that could be dangerous and 2. I was less than amused at the time, but clearly he was right.

So far, not so good.  What else could go wrong than not getting my own airplane started?  We walked over to the Cessna 172RG that had been flown down from the flight school in Hammond, the closest place that had a 172RG.  Quite unconsciously, apparently, when I’m preflighting my own airplane, I lean my lower leg back on the wheel pant for support while I sump the fuel from each wing.  It is truly one of those things you do without thinking about it until something happens to force you to think about why you do it.  Well, since these movements are all so ingrained after hundreds of preflights, I did the same thing on the RG.  The only problem is that this RG did not have wheel pants.  But it did, as I discovered, have a very hot disc brake that burned the crap out of my leg.  I jumped off it when at first I thought something had electrocuted me.  That’s what it felt like.  I looked at the instantly red spot on my leg and back at the wheel and realized what I’d done.  Imagine burning yourself and normally having a notoriously unclean vocabulary but being in a setting where you are really trying not to curse.  That may have been the hardest part of the checkride!  And you have to play it off like it ain’t no thang, so I’m limping around saying “I’m okay!  I’m okay!” while also trying to convince myself.  Again, the missing hula boy haunted me.  And this was only what was happening on the ground!  Would it be just as bad in the air?!?

My RG disc brake branding still there almost a week later

My RG disc brake branding still there almost a week later

And here it is almost two weeks later!  Don't see much change?  Neither do I!  I really wasn't planning on getting an airplane tattoo and would have chosen something a bit more creative if I knew it was going to stick around for this long.

And here it is almost two weeks later! Don’t see much change? Neither do I! I really wasn’t planning on getting an airplane tattoo and would have chosen something a bit more creative if I knew it was going to stick around for this long.

We agreed that I’d do the soft and short field takeoffs and landings in the RG and then return to my plane for the power off 180 degree accuracy landing and all the maneuvers.  The things that worried me the most were the short field landing and the power off 180 accuracy landing, and here’s why: for the short field landing, you pick out a spot on the runway that you communicate to the examiner, and you have minus zero and plus 100 feet to land the airplane from your chosen spot.  Ya’ll, that ain’t much.  Like it moves past in about a second at landing airspeed.  And for the power off 180 degree accuracy landing, when you are on downwind in the traffic pattern abeam your agreed-upon touchdown point, you pull the power to idle and have to nail your spot minus zero and plus 200 feet.  Keep in mind that no two landings are ever the same.  There’s wind speed, wind direction, pockets of air that raise or lower you, air density that affects airplane performance, and weight differences in the airplane.  There is no way to have two landings exactly the same.  So you can practice and practice and practice these landings, and they’re still all unique and have to be done on the fly, pardon the pun, and based on the conditions right then.  Wind is normally the biggest factor.  Is it pushing you toward the runway on downwind?  Away from it?  And how strong is it?  Is it so strong you need to turn directly to the landing point or do you need to fly downwind a bit more?  Then you have to judge your sink rate and, therefore, when to lower your flaps.  If you’re high, you can “slip” the airplane in to increase drag, but you can’t do a damn thing if you’re coming up short.

Considering all this, those two landings gave me the most sleepless nights of all the stuff I worried about.  But, as I was relieved to see, the missing hula boy curse did not extend to my performance in the air.  I’d never had an issue with the short field and soft field takeoffs, so those were fine.  And the landings were within limits.  But I still had the power off 180 degree accuracy landing to do in my airplane.  Still, I had shown myself that not everything was falling apart as I taxiied the RG back to the ramp.

Stay calm now.  I got through some of the stuff that had worried me before.  I can get through the rest.

We hop in my airplane, still sans hula boy, and I go through the checklist to start the plane.  Crank crank crank crank.  Still not starting and not sounding like it will.  We tried a few more times before we decided to call out the ground power unit so we didn’t run down the battery.  I was trying to remain calm after all the crazy stuff that had happened this morning.  Truthfully, I wasn’t succeeding at that whatsoever, but it sounded like a good and responsible thing to say.

It took some trying even with the ground power unit hooked up to my protesting plane, but we got it started.  I hoped that was the end of the problems I’d have.  Again, during the flight, I zoned out all the other stuff and flew like I know I can fly.  It was actually the worst I’d ever flown all the maneuvers except my always-loyal eights on pylons, but they were all still within limits.  Just goes to show you how much being nervous can affect your flying!  And he said I couldn’t have done the eights on pylons better, and that was my last maneuver before heading back to the airport.  All that was left was the power off degree 180 accuracy landing.  Gulp.  I knew that could make me fail the checkride after I had done all the others landings and maneuvers just fine.

The examiner asked if I wanted to do the accuracy landing right away or do a normal landing and then stay in the traffic pattern for the 180.  I said I wanted to do a normal landing so I could at least get a feel for what the wind was doing and if there were any bumps on final approach so I could plan for that with my accuracy landing.  I made a soft touchdown on 18L and poured on the coals for a touch and go (which I just recently learned the British call “circuits and bumps”, and because that’s so cute, I will heretofore refer to touch and gos as circuits and bumps).  So I was circuiting and I was bumping (but not too hard), and this was it!  The last landing of the checkride!  I told him my aim point was the top of the numbers.  Of course, in the weeks leading up to my checkride, the airport staff had been slowly repainting that runway.  Without runway markings like centerlines, figuring out length that I had flown past my point was really just guessing.  But wouldn’t ya know it!  They had painted centerline markings right before my checkride, leaving no guessing to figuring out distance as each centerline is a certain length and has a specific length space before the next one.  Drat.  No fudging now.

I took a deep breath as we approached the point on the downwind leg where I’d be abeam my aiming spot.  I pulled the throttle control to idle.  As the winds were not too strong, I continued downwind for a few seconds before turning back toward the runway.  I definitely didn’t want to come up short.  But I soon realized I was going to end up too high, so I dumped in full flaps and put the airplane into a slip.  I was starting to think I’d really blown it and that I’d still be way too high, but I kept the slip in until safety dictated that I straighten out for touchdown, and, with little float, I touched down not too far past my aiming point.  CHECKRIDE OVER!!!!

I taxiied off the runway at the first turn and kind of held my breath.  The examiner had been pretty quiet the entire time except for telling me which maneuver to perform next.  He said “You passed.”  I made nervous small talk on the way back to the ramp.  Once parked, he headed inside to finish the online paperwork while I secured the airplane.  There was no one else on the ramp to share my news with.  And no hula boy to talk to.  The whole thing seemed so anti-climactic after all the preparation that goes into it.  Oh well.  I guess my celebrating could come later.  I did my postflight ritual: I bowed to my airplane to show respect and kissed its spinner and headed inside to join the examiner.  He printed up my temporary paper certificate (a plastic one to follow hopefully in the not too distant future in the mail) that confirmed it.  COMMERCIAL PILOT was printed in all caps.  Damn that looked good with my name on it!

COMMERCIAL PILOT!

COMMERCIAL PILOT!

Postscript: you’ll be happy to know that hula boy didn’t blow away or go west permanently.  Whoever found him when he fell off his perch had kindly put him in my cubby at the flight school.  The sticky on the bottom had completely melted off in our lovely summer heat.  Now we’ll see how my super glue holds out.  Maybe the Trim God will smile upon the more permanent installation.

This was the beautiful sunset I enjoyed the evening of passing my checkride.  That kind of weather I don't mind taking with me!

This was the beautiful sunset I enjoyed the evening of passing my checkride. That kind of weather I don’t mind taking with me!

Post postscript: Orion went directly into maintenance after my checkride to see if they can fix this ridiculous hot start issue.  I had forgotten to take a picture of myself by the airplane after passing my checkride since I was in such a hurry to get to work.  So I went out the next day to visit it in the maintenance hangar and to take my official commercial pilot checkride passing picture!

My official checkride passing picture!  This is my interpretive dance of a lazy eight.

My official checkride passing picture! This is my interpretive dance of a lazy eight.

I Keep Taking the Weather with Me, Part 1

The title is a reference to a Jimmy Buffett song because going to my first ever Jimmy Buffett concert was supposed to be my reward for passing my commercial checkride.  But the weather had different plans.  In fact, the weather had different plans from day one of working towards getting my commercial rating.  My logbook shows that my first commercial lesson was on October 21, 2013, and that lesson was only after having to reschedule for weather.  I wish I had counted how many lessons were cancelled due to weather.  I remember at one point keeping track for about a month and it was 8 out of 10.  Since a commercial rating is not one that requires many specific hours to complete (I already had many more than the required 250 hours total time and 100 pilot in command time), it’s not usually one that takes very long.  After many attempts at lessons only to be cancelled because of bad weather (this was the winter when New Orleans actually had ice for like a week, so you can imagine the rest of the winter was also not so peachy), I told my instructor, who is a young 72 years old, that I’d be lucky if I had my rating by the time I was his age!  It truly felt like that many times when we had a whole month in between lessons, and certainly not for lack of trying.

So you can understand why the words of the Jimmy Buffett song “Weather with You” often came to mind throughout these past seven months and change.

I didn’t want to take the weather with me.  And it seems like we went directly from that hellacious and hopefully only once-in-a-lifetime winter to an already-stormy and pilot-unfriendly summer.  So, granted, the weather issues that cancelled flight lessons changed drastically, as if Mother Nature (and I swear just as I typed the “M” in Mother, thunder echoed) were trying to show off her vast and humbling repertoire.  The actual rating itself was completely overshadowed the entire time by weather.  I always took the weather with me, like it or not.

I even tried to cull favor with the Trim God by finally installing something in my airplane that I had been meaning to for years: a dashboard (in this case, instrument panel) hula boy.  And not just any hula boy but a bobble hula boy so that he shakes his thang in turbulence.  The stronger the turbulence, the more shaking.  He’d also do a short bump and grind when you had a hard landing.  I figured that: A. the Trim God likes anything tropical because he’s just fly like that and B. if a hula person is good enough for the Blue Angels’ Fat Albert (their hula is a girl, natch), it’s more than good enough for Orion.  My hula boy had decidedly mixed reviews: the women loved it and the guys hated it.  Well, it’s my airplane and I do what I damn well please with what little money is left after paying for the thing!  In fact, the cost of the hula boy was the perfect representation of the amount of spending money I have left over once all the airplane bills are paid.

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Back to the commercial training.  The commercial rating, in addition to the total time requirements discussed above, requires: 1. passing a written exam, which I got a 92% on back in September when I figured I’d whip this rating out by the end of the year; 2. at least 10 hours in a complex airplane, meaning one with a retractable landing gear and a controllable-pitch propeller; and 3. passing an oral exam and what’s called a checkride, which is a flight test.  Each checkride for each rating has different items you have to perform within certain parameters (altitude, heading, airspeed, etc.), and, of course, those limits get more and more strict as you get higher ratings.

I think everyone who I told or who knew I was going after my commercial rating asked if I was doing it because I want to do it for a living, and that’s a fair question.  Most people who go for a commercial rating do it as one of the many steps necessary to become a professional pilot, whether they intend to be a flight instructor, airline pilot, or corporate pilot.  But, as that’s never been my intention as long as I can keep my day job in finance, for me, it was not a means to an end.  The sole reason I wanted it was to know that I had the skills necessary to get it.  I won’t say it’s an easy rating, but I’ll say that it was definitely easier than the instrument rating, and most pilots I’ve talked to agree with that.  It was also, in my opinion, more fun.  With the instrument rating, you spend most of your time with a hood on so that you can’t see outside, and one of my primary reasons I fly is to enjoy the unparalleled view that so few get to enjoy.  The commercial maneuvers are totally new and can be fun (and often tricky, too), and, best of all, you’re constantly looking around outside enjoying the view.

While you still are required to perform some things that a private pilot has to learn, like steep turns, slow flight, and stalls, there are many maneuvers that are new and unique to the commercial rating.  A chandelle is a maximum performance climbing 180 degree turn.  Put another way, you perform a U-turn in the air while climbing from near cruise airspeed and end up at minimum controllable airspeed, so you’ve just turned in a pretty small radius and gained precious altitude, something you may need if you find yourself in a tight spot.  Then there’s the lazy eight.  Picture the letter S laid horizontally, but the loopy ends are higher than the part in the middle.  You climb while you’re turning left, hit the 90 degree point near minimum controllable airspeed, dive back down while slowly taking out the bank, then when you hit your original altitude and airspeed and are wings level, you start it in the opposite direction.  Some compare it to a rollercoaster, but it’s not that harsh (if done correctly).  Next, the steep spiral simulates having an engine failure and needing to spiral down directly below you, like if you were above a valley with high mountains or cliffs on all sides.  For this one, you have to factor in wind direction and speed so that you can stay over your point on the ground without letting the wind push you away from it.  You perform three 360 degree turns over your point and roll out on your original heading, and since you’re at idle engine power during this maneuver, you have to clear the engine by advancing the throttle once every 360 degrees, which can throw you off your trajectory if you’re not paying attention.  Finally, there’s the famous eights on pylons, which is a ground reference maneuver.  You pick two landmarks about a half a mile apart and do figure eights around them, but the catch with this one is that you have to figure out what’s called pivotal altitude, the altitude at which, given your airspeed, which of course changes constantly from the wind direction, makes it look like the wing is attached to the “pylon” on a string.  This is one where you can’t bust an altitude restriction as you are constantly climbing or descending to make it look like the wing is pivoting around the pylon.  I truly don’t know why, but this is the one that, every time we went up in practice, I nailed it.  So I’d say that was the one thing I wasn’t worried about on checkride day.  They’re all fun, but they can all turn to very stressful on checkride day when they have to be performed within specific limits and you know you’re not your best when you’re nervous.

Which brings us to checkride day.  It was set for Friday, May 30, the day before the Jimmy Buffett concert in Austin.  This is what I woke up to on checkride day when I looked out my front door towards the airport, and keep in mind that typical summer weather in the South means that those towering cumulonimbus will just get bigger and meaner as the day gets hotter, and this was at 6:00 in the morning.

photo

Not a good sign.  Mind you, we had a low pressure system parked over us, but it was in its third day here, was supposed to be slowly dissipating, and the forecast had been incorrect for the past two days when they said we’d have storms on and off all day.  But, given my disfavor with the Trim God of late, of course the forecast for storms on and off on checkride day proved to be true.  Still, since the storms were widely scattered, my FAA designated pilot examiner (DPE) agreed to come by the airport in the hopes that maybe it would be clear enough to go forward with my checkride.

A checkride starts with the oral portion so that you can discuss the flight he gives you ahead of time to plan, the weather along the route, and then any of the other thousands of questions that the examiner can ask.  It usually lasts about an hour and a half to two hours.  But since it became increasingly clear during the oral portion that we were most certainly not flying that day, mine was almost three hours.  Whew!  That was a lot of questions!  I felt confident the entire time, but on one question, when we disagreed about my answer, I respectfully said I still stood by mine versus what he thought it was.  I could feel the sweat break out.  Boy, this would look really bad if it turned out he was right!  Please please please let me be right!  We both went looking it up in the pile of books I brought for the exam, giving me a library of information at my disposal, but the trick was always knowing where it was in the pile because you could also look bad by fumbling around for it.  BAM!  I found the answer, and I was right.  HUGE sigh of relief!  It also restored my confidence, always a good thing when you’re nervous.

In case there was any doubt, it started to thunder and lightning as we were finishing up the oral portion of the exam.  Sigh.  I had already lost enough sleep leading up to this.  I didn’t want more sleepless nights until we were able to fly.  I had been having weird dreams about the exam.  Like the night before, my dream was that the examiner came to my parents’ house, where, for some reason, it looked nothing like my parents’ house and I was there with just my mom.  It was a nice, sunny day, and he showed up with a few suitcases packed full and proceeded to pretty much move in.  He was also getting really friendly with my mom, chatting her up about her garden, and mostly ignoring me.  Finally, he went into the bathroom and turned on the shower, came back out to unpack some more while the water warmed up, and was putting his stuff up on shelves.  Getting frustrated by now, I finally asked him “Aren’t we going to do my checkride?”  He replied “Yeah, sure, just as soon as I take a shower and unpack.”  He had pointed the showerhead so that it was spraying outside of the bathroom and was getting stuff wet all over the house, including the wall across from the bathroom.  But I didn’t want to be rude and tell him to move it.  Then I woke up.  So you can see why I was ready to have this over with.  I was also looking forward to being able to read non-study books and not feel guilty any time I did something other than studying for the oral exam or going over the flying maneuvers.

We finished up the paperwork for the continuance of the exam due to bad weather and agreed to try again on Sunday after I returned from Austin and by which time the weather was forecast to improve.  Well, I figured at least the Jimmy Buffett concert could be a half celebration for passing the oral exam.  Still, it’s not the same.

Driving to my parents’ house for dinner that night (the real house, not the dream one), I narrowly avoided two accidents when someone pulled out right in front of me and I had to slam on my brakes.  My nerves were already taxed from the exam, and this was only making it worse.  Then, once in the safe, quiet neighborhood where I grew up, I was jamming to a Jimmy Buffett song in my car when about 10 feet in front of me, a huge tree branch fell with a thud to the ground.  I hadn’t actually seen it directly.  I saw tree leaves rustling and just figured it was the now gentle breeze after the storm had passed or a bird flying away.  But I had seen movement in my peripheral vision and the deep thud made me look that way in time to see the branch bounce and come to a rest on the side of the road.  I don’t think it was big enough to have killed me had it hit me, but it certainly would have caused major damage to me and my car.  I was only a few blocks away now from my parents’ house, and I wondered now if I would make it there in one piece!  I wanted to go home and curl up into the fetal position in my bed with the covers pulled all the way over my head and suck my thumb!

We had a pleasant dinner together, and I made it home unscathed.  My parents had to get some groceries after I left their house, and they drove in the other direction from the grocery store to see if the branch was still there, and they texted me that it was bigger than I had guessed when I told them the story.  Gulp.

I did actually sleep well that night, knowing that I’d have a good time over the weekend at the concert in Austin.  Of course, every few hours, I’d check the forecast for Sunday, and it wasn’t looking promising.  After enjoying an amazing tailgate (sans the one celebratory drink that I was going to allow myself if I had passed my checkride on Friday) and concert, as I was headed home Sunday morning, I texted the DPE that it looked like there was no way we’d be able to fly, and he agreed, so we postponed.  Again.  This time to next Thursday as I was starting a new job on Monday and traveling to Florida for three days to be in the office.  More sleepless nights going over maneuvers in my head.  More fretting over the weather.  More wishing this had been over last week as now I had the added mental pressure of starting a new job.  This was getting old.

Fast forward to Thursday.  Forecast was looking very promising, but that morning had a different picture from the forecast.  There was fog in some places around the airport, and the cloud deck was getting thicker and lower.  Please no!  Not again!  But we texted back and forth and said we’d give it a shot.

Tune in next week for part 2 of the story, my actual checkride, when everything started to fall apart.  Literally!

 

Restored Terminal Building at Lakefront Airport

I thought ya’ll might like to see a few pictures from our beautifully restored terminal building at Lakefront Airport.  Lakefront Airport, then called Shushan Airport after Abe Shushan, the Orleans Levee Board President back in the mid-1930s when the terminal was built, was the original art deco airport, even before LaGuardia, which most people think of first when they think of art deco airports.  The airport first opened on February 10, 1934, and Abe Shushan had branded it quite heavily with his initials on doorknobs, counters, and fixtures.  The airport was renamed to New Orleans Airport after Mr. Shushan, a close friend of Huey Long, was convicted of tax and mail fraud.  In the 1960s, the gorgeous and wonderfully unique exterior of the building was covered in a plain concrete block when it was repurposed as a bomb shelter during the Cold War and remained that way until it was very badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina.  Construction to restore the terminal building to its original art deco design began soon after Katrina and was recently finished.  Many offices are still unoccupied, but it is open for large event rentals, and Messina’s runs a café called The Runway Café that is open for breakfast and lunch.  The building is also open for viewing, so if you’re in the area, bring your camera and stop by for a look at this historical gem.  The history is quite rich including a little-known fact that Amelia Earhart slept there at the start of her ’round-the-world attempt and even picked up Fred Noonan in New Orleans when her original navigator was forced to abandon the trip due to a family emergency.  Check out a book called Louisiana Aviation for great historic photos and interesting stories about Lakefront Airport and the rich aviation history of the state.

Why would anyone ever want to cover up this beautiful exterior?  Google Lakefront Airport to see pictures of what it looked like as a bomb shelter.

Why would anyone ever want to cover up this beautiful exterior? Google Lakefront Airport to see pictures of what it looked like as a bomb shelter.

If I were trying to decide who to put on the front of my airport building, I wouldn't choose someone who crashed, but maybe it was more along the lines of dream big.  Either way, it's still a cool look.

If I were trying to decide who to put on the front of my airport building, I wouldn’t choose someone who crashed, but maybe it was more along the lines of dream big. Either way, it’s still a cool look.

The receptionist's area with the roll window and above it the neon sign for the Walnut Room, a popular restaurant in the mid-1900s.

The receptionist’s area with the roll window and above it the neon sign for the Walnut Room, a popular restaurant in the mid-1900s.

Restoration plaque and sign for the telephone booths, which were put back in their original spot just with no telephones.

Restoration plaque and sign for the telephone booths, which were put back in their original spot just with no telephones.

 

Something you don't see much anymore: telephone booths!  Just without the telephones.

Something you don’t see much anymore: telephone booths! Just without the telephones.

The Abe Shushan plaque and more art deco signs.

The Abe Shushan plaque and more art deco signs.

 

Quite a grand staircase!

Quite a grand staircase!

This is one of my favorite parts.  This art deco railing has detailing to resemble an instrument found in every cockpit - the attitude indicator.  Here you can also see one of the famous murals by Enrique Alfarez and downstairs the Runway Café.

This is one of my favorite parts. This art deco railing has detailing to resemble an instrument found in every cockpit – the attitude indicator. Here you can also see one of the famous murals by Enrique Alfarez and downstairs the Runway Café.

Enrique Alfarez's murals were all covered up when the building was turned into a bomb shelter in the 1960s and some still have mold from Hurricane Katrina.

Enrique Alfarez’s murals were all covered up when the building was turned into a bomb shelter in the 1960s and some still have mold from Hurricane Katrina.

Another beautiful mural.

Another beautiful mural.

 

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The compass rose in the center of the floor.

The compass rose in the center of the floor.

Close up on the compass rose.

Close up on the compass rose.

Compass rose detail.

Compass rose detail.

These little airplane reliefs are above the office doors.

These little airplane reliefs are above the office doors.

Alcove ceiling detail.

Alcove ceiling detail.

Another alcove ceiling detail between the Runway Café and the receptionist's area.

Another alcove ceiling detail between the Runway Café and the receptionist’s area.

The Runway Café with original art deco seat and counter design.

The Runway Café with original art deco seat and counter design.

Ceiling light detail.

Ceiling light detail.

Upstairs beauty.

Upstairs beauty.

Come see it in person!

Come see it in person!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women in Aviation Week Post-Flight Debriefing

I always look forward to this annual event since getting more women involved in aviation has become my biggest life cause.  But then leading up to it, I start to stress about the weather, about people getting airsick, about someone not liking it.  I question why I put myself through the stress.  Will I really make a difference in someone’s life?  Will people remember this flight?  I tell myself not to fret about such things, especially the weather, since I can’t do a thing about any of them.  But since I want everyone to have a great time, of course I still worry about those things.  You could set your watch by my insomnia when I’d wake up in the middle of each night and check the weather, see that the forecast hadn’t changed since the last time I looked, think about how many times the forecast is correct versus incorrect, and hope that the predicted fog will lift sooner than forecast.  Having satisfied my curiosity but the outlook not looking any better, I could finally fall back asleep, restless though it was.

And the first day of my event nearly confirmed my fears of the weather not cooperating.  The low fog threatened to cancel the only flight for the day I had after the second one cancelled.  But, somehow, like magic, the clouds lifted *just* enough to fly the Lakefront Airport control tower supervisor and his two daughters over the city and then across the lake to see their house (they got an extra long ride since the other flight cancelled).

Taking off!  Photo by Matthew Cahn

Taking off! Photo by Matthew Cahn

I’m never sure if the kids are liking the flight.  They either talk nonstop about what they’re seeing or are totally silent, and I don’t know what to make of either reaction.  I ask every few minutes if they’re feeling okay to make sure they’re not about to throw up on the instrument panel or on me.  And once the flight is over and I can talk more, I ask how they liked it and get a subdued “That was cool” that I’m never sure if they really liked it or are just saying that to be kind.

Friday's happy passengers!

Friday’s happy passengers!

She looks like she belongs there!

She looks like she belongs there!

I walked them back into the terminal building and asked if the girls wanted to be pilots, and they both shook their heads shyly.  Ah well.  You can’t win ‘em all.  So I was delighted when their dad posted on Facebook later in the day that as soon as they got to the parking lot, they said they want to take flying lessons.  His exact words were “And I thought Catholic school was expensive!”  I love hearing that I influenced someone to take flying lessons, but I also feel sorry for the parents who have to pay for it!  I spared my parents that expense (though they certainly were not spared many other expenses with my odd hobbies growing up!) when I took up flying long after I had moved out.  You’re welcome!

Friday was a nice, easy day of flying with only the one flight after the fog lifted.  But I knew Saturday would be a long day, and of course I woke up in the middle of the night hoping everything would go smoothly.

We got started a little late on Saturday when my plane came back late from a lesson just before my flights, which then made all the rest of the flights I had late.  But it allowed me to get to know my first passenger a little better while we talked as we waited for the plane.  Bella is the cute daughter of one of our tower controllers, and she was full of energy and even more ready to go flying than I was!  We also share the same favorite color, so we bonded much better than I normally do with kids.  She and her dad came up with me for a couple of circles around the city to see the Superdome, all the skyscrapers downtown, the weird aquarium building, the French Quarter, the river, the parks, and all those houses and cemeteries we have dotting the landscape.

After the flight, Bella said she loved it and even gave me a hug on her way out.  That’s the kind of payment that makes me keep giving these flights for free!

Check out that look of authority with a wink and a thumbs up!

Check out that look of authority with a wink and a thumbs up!

My next flight was another special one since I had asked my best friend and his girlfriend if they wanted to come for a flight.  I joked with my best friend the night before that a lot of men see my posts about giving free flights to women and girls during the Women in Aviation week event and offer to wear a dress if they can come.  I always say “You can definitely come if you do that as long as I can take pictures!”  Sadly, no one actually takes me up on it.  But my best friend is different.  He’s a special case.  He’s never…how shall I put this?…taken life too seriously.  So when I mentioned the dress thing, and since he’s been a devoted Red Dress Run participant for years (it’s a popular bar hop event in New Orleans that sees nearly the entire male population of New Orleans wear a red dress), I saw that telltale sparkle in his eye and figured I’d be in for quite a sight when they showed up at the airport.  And I was not disappointed!  Luckily, his girlfriend is very understanding and takes his antics in stride.  He looked girlier than either of us did!  I get out of the plane from my previous flight to see him strutting up in a sleeveless red and black dress with a v-line neck, normally for cleavage but on a guy just shows chest hair, hairy legs, and a nice set of high heels that actually made me a little jealous of his shoes!  I laughed when I realized that this is a normal thing in New Orleans for a girl to be jealous of her guy friend’s shoes.  We took some pictures by the plane and even did a cover girl shoot with me egging him on “Work it, girl!  Work it!”

My best friend who took *Women* in Aviation Week seriously and showed up dressed for the occasion!

My best friend who took *Women* in Aviation Week seriously and showed up dressed for the occasion!

This was his "sexy" pose

This was his “sexy” pose

Right in the middle of my six flights on Saturday was my brother, his wife, and their two kids.  None of us were sure if the kids would like it or not.  I had taken my niece taxiing around in the plane years ago to get her used to the noise (neither of the kids like loud noises), but this was our first time actually flying.  So I took my brother and my niece on the first flight of the Seidemann family, and my niece liked it so much she asked if she could come on the next flight!  I think my brother may have liked it even more than my niece!  He’s heavily involved in cemetery preservation with his work for the state Attorney General, and he must have snapped a picture of every little cemetery in the city (and we have a ton)!  He even pointed out a few that I had never noticed before, and I’ve been on this merry-go-round once or twice.  My brother, who has never liked any kind of flying and who I wasn’t sure would come, even said that he could see how flying could be addictive and was surprised how smooth it was (thankfully that was one of the smoothest flights of the day)!  We then loaded up my sister-in-law, offloaded my brother, and put my nephew in.  As Lakefront Airport sits right on Lake Pontchartrain (which technically is not even a lake since it opens into the Gulf of Mexico and is actually an estuary, but who’s counting?), many of my passengers commented on how huge the lake looks even from the air.  My niece thought it was the ocean, and I can easily see the confusion when you look across and can’t see land on the other side.  Lake/Ocean confusion aside, another happy set of Seidemann passengers!

I had one last flight after my brother’s family to end quite a long day of flying.  Saturday’s passenger count was 13 people and 13 smiles getting out of the plane, the perfect ratio!

I could relax a little Saturday night as I knew Sunday was a shorter day with only two flights.  Even still, my mind will not let me sleep all night, and I had to get up to check the weather and worry about it some more.  I skipped my morning run so I could get some extra sleep and was pleased to see a nice, clear blue sky when I woke up.  Sigh of relief.

My first flight was the Airport Director’s daughter and her friend, and I realized that there’s a direct correlation between age (teenage) and number of selfies taken.  I thought about reminding them that there was actual scenery out the window, but I suppose everyone enjoys flying in her own way!

She has clearly mastered the art of selfies!

She has clearly mastered the art of selfies!

We lined up according to height...starting with the plane

We lined up according to height…starting with the plane

My next and last flight of the day was another tower controller’s daughter, her fiancé, and her fiancé’s brother.  The fiancé was the most nervous passenger I’ve ever had, and I worried that he’d really freak out once we got in the air.  It was his first flight ever, not just in a small plane, but ever.  I’ve taken a few people on their first flight ever, and they are always a little nervous.  But every time in the past, as soon as we got into the air, they forget the nervousness as they plaster their face to the window and marvel at the view.  I was hoping he would do the same, but I was starting to wonder.  I went through my schpeel about if you feel slightly dizzy or queasy, let me know right away and we’ll come straight back to the airport.  He went on and on about his life insurance policy and who would get his money if he died.  I asked him multiple times if he really wanted to go.  I’m not going to take anyone up who doesn’t want to go.  He said he was ready.  I wondered if this was going to be the story I end up telling around the airport about some crazy passenger who flipped out once we got airborne.  But all the worrying (his and, ergo, mine) was for nothing.  We hadn’t even reached our city tour altitude of 1,500 feet before he said he wanted to buy a plane and have me fly it.  Phew!  It was slightly bumpy, but everyone said they felt fine when I asked.  He was totally calm when we got out of the plane and took lots of pictures standing next to the plane.

A Girl and Her Plane!

A Girl and Her Plane!

That’s a wrap!  Total passengers: 21 (mostly women, a few men, and one dude in a dress).  Hopefully a few of those will become regulars at the flight school.  Total flights: 9.  Total engine running time: 5.5 hours.  And I’m happy to report that on Sunday night, I slept like a rock without having my mind wake me up to check the weather.  Until next year, happy Women in Aviation Week!

Fly It Forward for Women of Aviation Week!

I will be participating in the Fly It Forward initiative for the second year in a row during the international Women of Aviation week by giving short airplane rides to women and girls March 3-9, but since that is also Mardi Gras week here in New Orleans, I’ll only be flying after Mardi Gras.  You can contact me via my website, Facebook page, email, or phone to tell me what day/time you’d like to come (reservation required).  We will be flying from Lakefront Airport at the main terminal building (the art deco one that was recently reopened) from 12:00pm to 5:00pm Friday and Saturday and from 12:00pm to 3:00pm Sunday.  We will only fly if the weather is clear, for your safety and so you can enjoy the beautiful view.  Children are welcome as long as you think they would like to come and will not be scared or misbehave, but no babies please.  Feel free to tell your friends and forward this information.

Since I will personally be covering the costs of these flights, the only thing I ask in return is that you either “like” my Facebook page (the link is on the right side menu of this page) or sign up to receive email updates from my website if you are not on Facebook.

For more information about the Fly It Forward initiative, please visit http://www.womenofaviationweek.org/contests/fly-it-foward-challenge/.

I hope to see lots of eager women and girls at Lakefront Airport during the international Women of Aviation week!

A Girl and Someone Else’s DC-3

I hadn’t planned to go to Dallas this year for the annual AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) conference.  I was still settling into my new job and still (and will be for a long time) trying to save money and build my savings back up from being unemployed for 11 very long months.  But when my instrument instructor from years ago when I was living in California said he and some of my other pilot friends were going, I checked out ticket prices to get there and figured I could spend the little bit of money it would cost for the short flight on Southwest, and I got one way just on points, so my rationalization of the trip was even easier.  Until I was looking at the information on what would be going on around the conference and…ooh shiny!  You know the way kids will notice anything shiny?  That’s me with really cool airplanes.  I decided it was some serious fate in the works when I saw on AOPA’s Facebook page that a group called The Greatest Generation (http://www.gga1.org/) would be giving rides and the opportunity to actually fly (for a price, of course)…wait for it!…a C-47!  What’s a C-47, you ask?  I don’t blame you.  I had to look that one up myself.  But I almost swallowed my tongue when I saw that C-47 is just the military’s way of saying DC-3.  You read that right.  A chance to not only ride in but to also pilot a DC-3?!?  Is my mind playing tricks on me?

I mentioned that you could do these things for a price, yes.  But what about trying to save money, Erin?  Thank you for asking.  I did some quick calculating in my head of some stuff I was selling on eBay and justified the entire flight experience with that.  Okay, so it really came up $200 short.  But what’s an extra $200 above what I just sold on eBay for a chance to fly a DC-3?  Nada.  That’s what.  Here’s my credit card.  I had been so good lately about saving money.  One has to occasionally reward oneself for good behavior.

I began to read more about DC-3s and C-47s in general and tried to find as much information as I could about this plane in particular, named Southern Cross.  DC-3s came about when American Airlines asked Douglas for a larger version of the DC-2 that would allow for better sleeping accommodations on international flights.  The DC-2 was a 14-passenger plane, and the new plane, designated DC-3, would accommodate 24 passengers.  It is credited as being the biggest influence for the nearly 600% increase in airline passenger traffic between 1936 and 1941.  It was one of the famous “Pan Am Clippers” and is invoked often when speaking of the “golden age” of aviation.  It took what was then thought of as a short 16 hours from San Francisco to Hawaii, something that now takes about five hours.  The military quickly figured out that it would be great for transport but specified some modifications to be made, including larger engines, stronger floors, and larger cargo doors, in its large order of them in 1940, now with the military designation of C-47 Skytrains.  It was also known as “Dakota” by the British, R4D by the Navy, Skytrooper, Gooney Bird, and a few colorful names I won’t mention here.  It flew the infamous Burmese Hump and was a utilitarian troop transport in various campaigns in WWII.  It was also the original aircraft used in the Berlin Airlift before being replaced by the bigger and faster C-54 Skymasters and DC-4s.  What an incredibly noble and storied past!

I barely slept the two nights leading up to my flight.  I kept telling myself, while tossing and turning, how ridiculous it was to lose sleep over this, but my mind just wouldn’t turn off wondering what it was going to be like.  I knew our time together would be far too fleeting – only 30 minutes.  So I wanted to make the most of every second!

When I arrived at the Vintage Flying Museum at Ft. Worth Meacham Airport (KFTW), the C-47 was already pulled out of the large hangar and was parked on the ramp near a taxiway.  The C-47 is a taildragger, as all planes used to be before the tricycle gear became the norm.  And I have my taildragger endorsement, having flown many Citabrias, Super Decathlons, an Extra, and a Pitts.  But never anything like this!  It pointed up so high that it looked like it was begging to be taken into the air and was too impatient to wait.  Since I knew I’d only have 30 minutes to fly it, I wanted to spend at least that amount of time beforehand taking pictures of it.  I had just taken my first one when a gentleman asked “Are you here for the pilot experience?”  Why, yes.  Yes I am.  He introduced himself as Chris, one of the C-47 pilots, and said he flies in from Florida just so he can fly the plane.  Can’t blame him there!

I must be dreaming.  Do I really get to fly this?

I must be dreaming. Do I really get to fly this?

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Chris escorted me inside the hangar and introduced me to Jim Terry, the C-47 instructor.  I also met Don, the other pilot who I would be sharing a flight with.  Jim brought us into a small room on the side of the hangar that had a submarine torpedo sitting on the floor.  Well that’s something you don’t see everyday!  Jim already had a diagram of the airport drawn on the whiteboard and talked about the important speeds for tail lift, rotation, climb out, downwind, and final approach.  I tried to ingrain them in my memory but also knew that in the heat of controlling the airplane for the first time, I’d forget absolutely everything, possibly even my name, and would rely heavily on Jim for instruction.  He also said that it’s so loud with takeoff power that we won’t be able to hear each other even with our headsets on, so he’d use hand signals during that time.  I actually didn’t believe that and thought I’d be able to hear with my super-duper noise cancelling headset.  All this information was great, but all I could think was “So when do I get to fly it?!?”

FINALLY (okay, so it was only like 10 minutes), we got to do a walkaround of the airplane with Jim explaining things as we went along.  The wingspan on this thing is a whopping 95 feet, just a tad longer than my airplane’s 36 feet.  And the cockpit sits up about 16 feet high, giving me a rather different perspective than sitting about six feet high in my airplane.  You gotta love an airplane that you have to climb up an incline from the back to get into the cockpit!  The main gears were so big that the top of the tire came up to my chest.  Just the flaps alone were about the size of my entire wingspan.  The cover for the landing light had protective wiring covering it because apparently if a rock or enemy fire broke the cover and the landing light, it was such a huge drag that the wing could barely produce enough lift to stay in the air.  Oh and those big, beautiful radial engines!  They were covered in oil and there was a pretty good oil spot on the ground just from sitting out for an hour or two, and Jim said that’s all normal.  This airplane is definitely not for the faint of heart nor for those who mind getting dirty.

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This wingspan is just slightly bigger than my Cessna's

This wingspan is just slightly bigger than my Cessna’s

Big, beautiful radial engine!

Big, beautiful radial engine!

The top of this tire was as high as my chest.

The top of this tire was as high as my chest.

Lots of oil everywhere, but you'd need oil, too, if you were that old and still running smoothly!

Lots of oil everywhere, but you’d need oil, too, if you were that old and still running smoothly!

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It's begging to go fly!

It’s begging to go fly!

Since Don had more ratings than I have, I suggested he go first so I could watch and hopefully learn something from seeing him fly it and more hopefully not make a total ass of myself when it was my turn.  It was a really dreary, overcast day with a big storm and cold front due to hit that night.  We taxied out and picked up the ATIS that said the ceiling was broken at 900 feet.  In order to fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), the ceiling has to be at least 1,000 feet high, but Jim said that since we would only be staying in the pattern, we’d have no problem getting a Special VFR from the ground controller.  So when he called up the ground controller and the controller asked “Do you have an IFR flight plan on file?”, Jim said “Negative.  Request Special VFR to remain in the pattern.”  The ground controller came back with “Unable Special VFR.”  My world came crashing down as I knew that the weather would only deteriorate from here on for the day.  Good thing I didn’t have a microphone or I would have yelled “But don’t you get that this is a once-in-a-lifetime flight?!?  Please let me go!”  We all looked at our watches to see how long it would be for the next weather update to come out.  It was 10 minutes away.  Jim said he couldn’t sit there with the engines running for 10 minutes, so we taxied back to the hangar and shut down.  Both Don and I were completely dejected.  By the looks on our faces, you’d think someone had just died.  Jim suggested we look around the museum while we waited, which we did while we traded flying stories and compared ratings and hours.  About 15 minutes later, Jim found us and said that they had signed up a full plane of passengers who wanted to take a ride around the city.  The ceiling had miraculously lifted to 1,100 feet.  He asked if we wanted to ride along and then hopefully we’d be able to fly it after.  Did we want to ride along?  Gosh, lemme spend a whole nanosecond thinking about that.  “YES!”  Did I say that too loudly and eagerly?

Since Don had already had the pleasure of taxiing it before, he let me taxi it over to the conference flightline where we’d pick up the passengers.  It’s normal for me to need a cushion even in my plane to be able to reach the rudders.  I needed two cushions in this plane and still had to kind of slouch so I could get full deflection on the rudders.  And full deflection was absolutely necessary because it took full deflection to get any response from the plane.  So I’d be taxiing, it’d stray a bit from the centerline, I’d gingerly push on the rudder like I’m used to doing in my plane to get a quick response, realize it hadn’t budged, and then put in full rudder, but then it was already pointed too far the other way.  So taxiing, and this is with the tailwheel lock making it easier on the straight parts of the taxiway, was a full leg workout.  I pulled up to the flightline, and I’m telling you every single person standing there had their cameras out taking pictures and video of this beautiful beast.  I felt a little weird being the one driving it in all these pictures and wished I could have told them this was my first time ever touching the airplane just to see their reaction.  I’m sure they expected some grizzled war-weary veteran to be sitting up there, certainly not l’il ol’ me with my two cushions behind me.  Once we shut down the engines, though, it was time for me to give up my fantasy and turn it back to the real pilots.

Finally get to sit there and taxi it!

Finally get to sit there and taxi it!

Since the city tour had sold out all 22 seats, Don and I perched on the foldout jump seats where the parachuters used to sit and were happy as could be while we secretly prayed that the ceiling would stay high enough for us to fly it later.  Jim wasn’t lying when he said it got loud with takeoff power.  I used my phone’s sound level meter app (consequence of being an audiologist’s daughter), and it got up to 105dB!  This plane is no joke!  Once we were in the air and I was looking out over the huge right wing, I started to get really choked up.  I was so thankful to be one of the few people to ever have such an opportunity, and I kept having to fight back tears of joy.  I would NOT be the woman who cried on this airplane, even if I were crying for a good reason.  I just turned my head further outside while I fought back the tears each time.

Wings over Dallas/Ft. Worth

Wings over Dallas/Ft. Worth

The flight was short, just enough time for the passengers to snap some pictures while we circled over the city.  It was a little crosswindy coming back in for a landing, and Chris put it down in a textbook one wheel down first crosswind landing.  Jim had said to never pull back once we land to put the tail down.  It will settle by itself as we lose speed, and it settled down ever so gently and slowly as if someone were setting down a newborn baby and didn’t want to wake it.  After the passengers got off, the ground crew said we had another full flight signed up and then would have some free time.  So would we like to ride again?

Can I fly you, too?

Can I fly you, too?

As we were waiting for the passengers to board, Jim saw me looking around the bulkhead reading things that people had written on it.  There were lots of war veterans who had written their unit and years served.  Jim pointed to one and said “This one is my favorite.”  It was a person’s name and said that this very airplane had taken her out of Berlin during the Berlin Airlift.  Jim asked her if she was sure it was this airplane since there were so many C-47s used in the Berlin Airlift.  She assured him that she had written the tail number in her diary, and it was definitely this very airplane.  That gives you pause.

Things just got real.  This airplane saved lives!

Things just got real. This airplane saved lives!

I have to say that between two rides, a BBQ lunch with the pilots and ground crew, and then finally our own flight time, I definitely feel like I got more than my money’s worth!  Jim and his crew really went out of their way to make it up to us that we couldn’t fly in the morning when we had planned, even though the weather wasn’t their fault.  On the second ride, I sat in the tail because there was a small vent in the side of the plane that let some air in back there.  It was a hot day in Fort Worth, and the airplane not only didn’t have any A/C but also not much airflow inside at all.  After we got back from lunch and were climbing up into the front of the plane, Jim joked “Let me get up there and turn on the air conditioning.”

It was Don’s turn again, so I let him go first.  I didn’t learn a damn thing from watching him fly other than it looked like a lot of work.  He flew while Jim handled the flaps and gear, synced the engines, and pushed a bunch of buttons that I had no idea what they did.  Don landed it and pulled off onto a taxiway and then it was my turn.

I climbed up there, moved the seat all the way up and forward, asked Don to grab me a second cushion, and then grabbed the yoke and tried to contain my excitement.  I taxied onto the runway and held the brakes as we pushed the throttles full forward.  Keep in mind this was my first flight ever in a multi engine, so I really just pointed the plane around the pattern while Jim handled the props, throttles, gear, and flaps.  I touched the throttles once, which was enough for the time being since I had my hands full keeping it pointed in the right direction.  He gave the signal, and I let off the brakes as we went roaring forward.  He gave another signal and I gently pushed forward on the yoke to lift the tailwheel.  We rolled down the runway some more while gaining more speed, and he gave another signal to rotate.  I pulled back gently on the yoke and we rose slowly into the air.  HUGE difference here is that in my airplane, when you pitch for optimum rate of climb speed, the airplane is pitched pretty far up.  The airplane looks like it’s reaching for the sky.  The C-47 pretty much lifted off level and felt like someone was simply pushing it up from under it rather than pointing up to the sky.  Soon after we broke ground, Jim reduced the throttles a bit and we could hear each other over the radios again.  I also only realized to use trim when I felt my bicep straining under the weight of pulling the yoke back as if I were lifting up the airplane myself.  Funny how even the most basic airplane feature is forgotten when learning a new one.  It’s been so long since I was a student pilot that I don’t remember how I felt then, but I assume I felt a lot like I did flying the C-47 for the first time.  I felt totally spastic and like my almost 600 hours showed no experience whatsoever.  He said to start my crosswind turn and warned that it takes way more rudder than aileron.  Rather than easily and docilely turning, it felt like you had to encourage it around.  Each turn was enormous and something you’d have to really think about ahead of time, much like I would imagine driving a bus feels like compared to driving a small car.

Can you give me another cushion please?

Can you give me another cushion please?

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We came around for my first landing, and the great thing about the C-47 is that as long as you arrest the descent about a foot or so before touching down, it’ll slowly settle onto the runway to give you a smooth as silk landing that makes you look and feel like a good pilot.  We kept the tail up as we rolled and applied full power to do another lap around the patch.  Luckily for me, the controller asked me to extend upwind and then again downwind, so I got an extra 30 seconds or so to fly the plane.  Even with feeling like a bumbling idiot, I didn’t want it to end.  The plane gave me another very gentle touchdown and then the tail slowly settled onto the ground.  Once it was on the ground, Jim pulled the yoke back all the way to plant it, and the yoke was squished up against my chest from being so far forward with the cushions.  Clearly this airplane was not built for someone my size, but, then again, few if any things are.  I just took it as the airplane giving me a goodbye hug.

I taxied back and reluctantly shut down the engines, not wanting our time together to end.  Again we parked it on the convention flightline, and people immediately swarmed all around it to take pictures even though there was already another DC-3 parked there.

Don and I walked away together to go check out the other displays, but I kept looking back at the Southern Cross.  Nothing could come close to topping that.

In the cab ride back to Dallas Love Field, the driver asked what brought me to Fort Worth.  I told him I was here for an aviation convention.  He asked if I was a pilot, and I said yes, staring out the window while daydreaming of my time in the DC-3.  I’m used to people asking me questions when I say I’m a pilot, questions like “What do you fly?”  “Is it hard?”  “How long have you been a pilot?”  “Do you fly for an airline?”  But he sprang a new one on me: “Have you ever seen any UFOs while you’re up there?”

Hunting for Hurricanes

Anyone who knows me knows that I would give a female reproductive organ (or what’s left of mine) to ride in a C-130.  It’s my favorite big plane.  Yes, I had to break down my favorite airplane into two categories because who could possibly name one favorite airplane?  So I have a favorite big plane and a favorite little plane…well…and maybe a favorite plane of the week…if not of the day.  Anyhoo, the C-130 Hercules is it.  The sound.  The size.  The things that can fit into it.  If you don’t know what a C-130 is but you’ve seen the Blue Angels performing at airshows, it’s the big transport airplane they use.  The Blue Angels’ one, flown by Marines, is called Fat Albert and even has JATO (jet assisted take off) to make it even cooler.  I’ve nearly driven my car up a light pole on multiple occasions when I see a C-130 fly by.

So when I got the itinerary for the Southeast section meeting of the 99s (the international organization of women pilots started by Amelia Earhart and 98 other women pilots http://www.ninety-nines.org/) and it said we’d get to climb around a C-130, let’s just say it’s a good thing I have high ceilings or I would have hit my head.  But that’s not all!  It also said you could choose to fly into either Gulfport airport (KGPT; landed there, done that) or a private grass strip called Shade Tree Airport (http://www.shadetreeairport.com/) owned by one of the 99s and her husband.  Ooh!  Private!  Grass!  Strip!  I signed up faster than whatever the Southern equivalent of a New York minute is!  So I’d have to get up super early after working super late the night before.  Small price to pay for a C-130.

I had my alarm set for 5:45.  I used to get up even earlier than that all the time when I worked the early morning shift.  But it’s funny how quickly being on the night shift makes one forget about things like the sun might not be up at that hour.  It was totally dark when I looked outside, and only then did I think to check the sunrise time online to see if it would even be light for my 6:45 departure.  Teensy little minor detail there.  I did get to enjoy a beautiful sunrise on the way there, making it difficult to see much, but it was pretty anyway.

Sunrise over the Gulf Coast

Sunrise over the Gulf Coast

Flying into a grass strip is pretty different than flying to a paved runway airport.  You can typically see paved runways from miles away.  But grass strips look like any other patch of grass.  I had checked out Google maps beforehand hoping to find some landmarks that would help me find it.  Well, there was grass, and trees, and some small ponds, and more grass, but nothing that looked any different from the adjacent grass, trees, and small ponds.  So I knew I’d have to rely pretty heavily on my GPS and just keep zooming it in more and more as I got closer to make sure I didn’t fly past it.  When you are talking to an approach controller, they want you to let them know when you have your landing field in sight.  And if you forget to do that, they’ll kindly remind you with something like “November Five Niner Zero Sierra Papa, airport is at your twelve o’clock and six miles,” which is exactly what my controller said to me.  I replied “Zero Sierra Papa, I’m gonna have to get a lot closer than this to see it!”  How far away was I when I finally saw it?  About 50 feet thanks to the tall trees that surrounded it on all sides.  Not long enough to set up a stabilized approach, but I knew I’d have to overfly the runway anyway to check out the windsock so I could figure out which way to land.  The wind was favoring the direction I had come from, so I needed to make a traffic pattern to come back around to land.  I flew the upwind leg, turned 90 degrees to fly the crosswind leg, checked back out the window to make sure I didn’t lose sight of the airport, turned another 90 degrees for downwind…and lost it.  Well, that’s the beauty of flying a good rectangular traffic pattern: I knew I’d find it again on base or final.  First notch of flaps when I figured I was somewhere near abeam what would be the runway numbers if the grass had runway numbers, turn base and put in another notch of flaps, still no airport, turn final and there it is!  Dump full flaps, figure out if I can make it safely, check my airspeed since I wanted to land a little slower than on a paved runway, and put it down for its first grass landing since I moved back from California.  I was gingerly slowing down as I didn’t want to jam on the brakes and get stuck if there was a soft spot, and just as I was about to slow enough to turn around, there was a down slope to the runway.  Well, I’m in no hurry, so I was patient.  Once I slowed down enough to turn around, I could see my tracks in the grass, still wet with morning dew.  Ahhhhhhh.  What a beautiful sight for a pilot!

My tracks in the grass at Shade Tree Airport

My tracks in the grass at Shade Tree Airport

I turned around and noticed someone in a golf cart drive right up to the edge of the runway.  That usually means “Follow me”, so I did just that.  He escorted me to a nice spot to park my plane in front of a cute Acadian house with rocking chairs on the porch.  One of the Mississippi 99s, the one who owned the airport, in fact, was waiting to drive me to Keesler Air Force Base (KBIX) to meet the other 99s who had flown and driven in the night before.  We had to send in our information a week in advance to get passes to drive into the base.  We were escorted to a parking lot next to one of many huge buildings.  The base seemed to go on forever, the grounds very clean and manicured as you would expect at a military base.

We were a large group of 44 women (44 99s, to be exact or to confuse you, whatever the case may be) and a few brave men who could somehow deal with the estrogen overload.  We piled into a presentation room where Major Kait Woods, a member of the Hurricane Hunter squadron (http://www.hurricanehunters.com/), was waiting to show us a slideshow and explain the airplane and their missions before we went outside to the flightline to see the airplane.

Sign leading out to the flightline

Sign leading out to the flightline

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I actually got a little choked up (no one saw that!) when I gazed longingly at a picture looking out the window of the C-130 flying through a storm.  The Hurricane Hunter squadron flies the model WC-130J, the most noticeable difference from the normal C-130 being that the J model has six-bladed props versus the four-bladed props in non-J models.  They often fly at 500-1,500 feet above the water while they observe the sea state to determine the rotation of a storm.  In hurricanes that are Category 3 and higher, they will penetrate the storm at 10,000 feet because at that altitude, there is no icing and less lightning formation.  Their flight pattern looks like an “X”, and each leg of the X is 105 nautical miles (NM).  They fly four penetrations per mission.  She said the eye of a hurricane can be anywhere from 3 to 30 NM wide!  They drop these small tubes called “dropsondes” that transmit data in real time to the base – temperature, dew point, and pressure – to give a vertical profile of the storm, and they continue transmitting until they hit the water when the salt water breaks a seal on the casing, and the water getting into it stops the transmissions.

Major Woods pointed out how important it is to understand the movement of hurricanes because it costs an average of one million dollars per square mile that needs to be evacuated.  That’s a good enough reason!

During the winter, when there are thankfully no hurricanes for them to hunt, they fly presidential support by transporting vehicles and other supplies, they conduct air medical training missions, and they participate in great projects like Wounded Warriors (http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/).

This was all fascinating, really I was learning a lot, but I couldn’t contain my excitement and wanted to go touch the airplane.  Major Woods warned us not to walk past a red line painted on the ground once we exited the building to get to the flightline or the base security would come have a word with us.  I stood with my toe on the red line like I was waiting for a race gun to go off until our escort led us out to the airplane.

Erin hears angels singing when she sees this

Erin hears angels singing when she sees this

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The inside of a C-130 is, of course, immense.  You can drive cars and tanks into it.  And you can fit 44 eager 99s into it with room to spare.  It’s bigger than my first many apartments.  I really wanted to strap myself in and refuse to leave, but I showed a lot of self-control and got out when the tour was over.

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A dropsonde and the tube they use to drop it

A dropsonde and the tube they use to drop it

Step back, ya'll!  I got this!

Step back, ya’ll! I got this!

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We went back inside where they said we could buy t-shirts if we wanted.  They said since they hadn’t been going to as many airshows since the government sequestration hit, they weren’t making as much money since the t-shirt sales at airshows was a pretty big money maker.  One of the 99s assured them that we’d make up for at least a few missed airshows.  The t-shirts were stored in a small closet off the main hall, and when they opened that door for a bunch of women who are crazy about all things aviation, I swear it was like hand-to-hand combat trying to get anywhere near the closet.  I was only about five people back when they opened the door, and I’m telling you a 70-something year old lady elbowed her way past me.  I patiently waited my turn and then squeezed into one side of the closet.  It was like being at a bazaar in Marrakesh with women yelling out “What size is that one?”  “How much is that one?”  “Can you throw me one of those?”  It’s a good thing I liked the shirts they had on that side of the closet because there was no way I could change position once inside.  Trying one on for size was like trying to move around in a subway during rush hour in China.  I put my money in the collection box and then dodged and weaved my way upstream through the crowd.  From the looks of it, we probably just funded the next WC-130J they buy.

Next we went to another part of the base where they had the WC-130J simulator and got to climb inside it.  Want to know how much just one WC-130J simulator costs?  $30 million big ones.  Looking up at the raised simulator (they are raised since they are full motion, so they need room to move), I thought “Hmm.  So that’s what $30 million looks like.”

The WC-130J full motion simulator

The WC-130J full motion simulator

After the simulator, we drove to another building on base where two officers met us outside.  The man said that he was going to show us something even cooler than the C-130.  They were about to give us a tour of the air traffic controller training facility.  What?  Did I just hear him right?  Sir, no offense to you and your tin pushers.  I mean, some of my best friends are tin pushers.  But there simply ain’t no amount of air traffic controllers and their gizmos and wingdings that can equal anything near as cool as a WC-130J.  Thank you very kindly for trying, though.

Air Traffic Control training simulator

Air Traffic Control training simulator

Next we headed over to Infinity Space Center near the Stennis International Airport for a self-guided tour of the space museum.  It was geared more towards kids, but since we were acting like older kids today, that worked just fine.  My parents used to drive us over to Florida when my brother and I were kids to watch the space shuttle launches.  I don’t remember them at all, but it stirs something inside me every time I see video of a launch.  The engineering needed to produce that kind of raw power is amazing.  So I sat and watched the videos they had playing on loop of launches and the building of a launch pad in the swamp.  I stood on a scale that told me my weight on each planet in our solar system.  I much prefer my weight on Pluto to the one here on Earth.  Weren’t we all supposed to be living on the other planets by now?  I think we need to restart that discussion just so I can weigh 1/5 of what I do here.

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Wait!  Why does this only come in kids sizes?  I want one!

Wait! Why does this only come in kids sizes? I want one!

We finished the day at Stennis Airport with a tour of the Aerojet Rocketdyne rocket engine assembly facility.  We couldn’t take pictures there, but we got to walk around the assembly floor and see some engines in storage, one that our tour guide said was worth $1.6 billion!  Hmm.  So that’s what $1.6 billion looks like.  It actually just looked like something big covered in plastic.  It’s baffling what some pieces of metal stuck together cost.  I guess the same goes for airplanes.

We headed back to Shade Tree Airport where it was bustling with the exact kind of activity you would expect at a grass runway: two Stearman taildraggers were giving rides, chairs were set up for an outdoor aviation movie night, and local pilots had brought all manner of food and drink to enjoy the evening with friends.  Sadly, I had to leave to get back home for the reopening of the Lakefront Airport terminal building (more on that in a later post).  I left with multiple requests to come back anytime.  I love my friendly aviation community!  And I got to finish off the day with a colorful sunset coming home.

Snoopy and his flying doghouse at Shade Tree Airport

Snoopy and his flying doghouse at Shade Tree Airport

The Snoopy wind tetrahedron at Shade Tree Airport

The Snoopy wind tetrahedron at Shade Tree Airport

Orion sitting on the flightline at Shade Tree Airport

Orion sitting on the flightline at Shade Tree Airport

Sunset over the Gulf Coast

Sunset over the Gulf Coast

Sharing the Passion with Others

A while back, during my short stint as a line girl (Line Girl and Line Girl Part 2), I was about to leave work one night when a couple showed up with their little boy, Linus.  It was his third birthday, and they were taking him on an airplane ride to celebrate.  He had on the cutest blue astronaut suit.  I found out they were going to be in my plane, and since their pilot was running a little late, I and another line guy showed him around some airplanes in the hangar while his mother, a professional photographer (http://www.dorkaphotographyblog.com/), took pictures.

Linus had so many questions that I wouldn’t even be finished answering one and he’d already be asking the next one.  I asked if he wanted to go sit in my airplane so he could see the one he’d be flying in, and he made a beeline for my plane.  His mother must have taken about 400 pictures, and that was even before they got off the ground!  She sent me some of me with Linus on my lap while I explained how the airplane and instruments work.  He pointed to every single thing on the panel and asked “What’s that?”  I told him there’d be a quiz at the end, and he asked “What’s a quiz?”

Linus checking out my plane Photo: Dorka Hegedus http://www.dorkaphotographyblog.com/

Linus checking out my plane
Photo: Dorka Hegedus http://www.dorkaphotographyblog.com/

"What's that?" Photo: Dorka Hegedus http://www.dorkaphotographyblog.com/

“What’s that?”
Photo: Dorka Hegedus http://www.dorkaphotographyblog.com/

"I got this, mom!" Photo: Dorka Hegedus http://www.dorkaphotographyblog.com/

“I got this, mom!”
Photo: Dorka Hegedus http://www.dorkaphotographyblog.com/

 

Ya’ll know I’ll talk about flying to anyone who will listen.  But I especially love talking to cute kids in astronaut suits who wear me out with their inquisitiveness and excitement.  Flying and owning an airplane isn’t just about the joy it brings me; I love to see the joy it brings others.

Beautiful moonrise! Photo: Dorka Hegedus http://www.dorkaphotographyblog.com/

Beautiful moonrise!
Photo: Dorka Hegedus http://www.dorkaphotographyblog.com/