hotteens cuming

Flying Lessons

Last Sunday, finally a gorgeous day after almost two weeks straight of low overcast, rain, and storms (one of which brought golf ball sized hail), I hoped to fly.  I hadn’t been able to fly my new Seneca in over a month.  First, it needed new seals on a leaky strut, and it took a while to get the seals and then for my mechanic to have space to work on my plane.  Once it was fixed, then we had the bad flying weather that seemed like it would never end.  I was about to go nuts as it had been way too long since I had flown the Seneca.  I really figured by now, about two months after I bought the plane, that I’d have my multi-engine rating and could get back to my beloved flying freedom.

I had gotten up early to run so we could start the flying day early as well, and I got excited that I’d finally be back behind the yoke.

But all that excitement turned to frustration as soon as I tried my first right turn while taxiing to the runway.  The right brake was so spongy that instead of turning like I was trying, I was headed towards the grass and pressed hard on both brakes to stop the plane before I did.  My instructor tried his brakes to see if he had the same issue, and he did.  So we used differential power on the engines to get us safely (and grass-free) back to the ramp.  Sigh.  This not flying was getting super old with me.

I would have likely had a minor breakdown if my instructor had not offered me a ride in a very nice Cessna 421 that he was selling.  We made the short flight across the lake to get fuel.  Each way was maybe 12 minutes, but it was enough for me to see the ground from the sky again, maintaining my sanity.

I went home to relax before a planned dinner out with my parents.  I was surfing Facebook on my laptop when I noticed an odd noise.  Mind you, on a weekend with nice weather, especially after everyone’s cabin fever from the long stretch of gloomy days, the traffic along the lake can reach fever pitch, so noises on a gorgeous weekend day here don’t really get much attention from me other than cursing the drag racers.  I probably didn’t even notice the first time the noise happened.  But I did notice when it was repeated.  I instantly blew it off as someone at the garbage chute near my front door.  The garbage falling three floors often made an odd sound as it scraped along the sides of the chute and then plopped down into the metal garbage bin.  And sometimes it surprises me how long a person stands there feeding garbage down the chute.  But now this had been going on for about a minute, longer than I would think it would take to throw stuff away even after a big house party.  So I got up from my comfy desk chair and peeked out my front door.  No one there.  Hmm.

It was then I heard the sound again and realized it was coming from behind me, inside my condo.  I have an end unit, and it was on the side without neighbors.  I listened closely.  It happened again and I walked to where I thought it had come from.  I was standing in front of a little enclosed alcove where my washer and dryer sit.  They were not running.  I heard it again.  It was coming from the short wall of the enclosure between my washer and where my surfboard, which I’ve yet to use, rests against the wall on the other side.

Oh no.  Not again!  Years ago and soon after I had moved in, a bird had somehow gotten into one of the outflow vents on the outside of my building.  We didn’t know it at the time, but we found out the hard way that apparently that vent leant access to a low ceiling above my desk before my living room opens up to a high sloping ceiling.  The noise I was hearing now was that same scratching that I had heard when the bird was in the ceiling above my desk.

But how on earth did something get into this wall?  I went outside to look at the outflow vents.  After the first bird incident, I had covered them in mesh so that nothing could get in.  I noticed my dryer vent had a very tiny hole in the mesh, and I figured that must have been how it got in even though there was also a flapper on the outside to keep anything from getting in.  I also figured, as with the first bird break in, that there must have been a hole in the duct, allowing it to get into the wall.  Still, it seemed extremely improbable.  But, then again, it had happened before.

I stood there looking at the wall.  At least with the air vent, all we had to do was remove the vent cover and then move the duct to one side to allow that first bird to escape.  But this one was in a wall with no way to access the inside.  I did what any mid-30s person would do: called Dad.  He was on the road coming back from a crawfish boil in Lafayette with one of his car clubs.  And he had his hands full as his car was acting up.  So we said we’d figure out what to do when they came for dinner in a couple of hours.

I stood there again, staring down at where the occasional sound came from.  It sounded like it was trying to fly but was stuck.  I walked around both sides of the wall looking for any opening that I hadn’t noticed before.  There was some kind of access panel that had been painted over years ago by the previous owners.  I had never used it, so I figured it was for something that wasn’t even here anymore.  It had no markings.  I slid my washer out a few inches so I could see behind it.  Maybe there was some way into the wall there?  Nothing.

It was still moving and sometimes chirping, so I figured it would be okay while we went to dinner.  On the way back to my house from the restaurant, we discussed options as we thought of them.  We joked that I may need to cut the wall open, something that just made me groan.  I had just survived a very unpleasant bathroom remodel (is there such a thing as a pleasant remodel?) where a lot of sheetrock had to be removed from the ceiling below the bathroom.  My contractor swore I “wouldn’t be able to tell there was a hole there” with a good sheetrock patch and a careful painter.  I can tell.  Everyone who walks in my condo can tell.  So to hear “cut into the wall” made me think “Only as an absolute last resort.”

We got home and I started calling “Bird?  Bird, are you still here?” and knocking on the wall.  For the first few minutes, we didn’t hear anything and I said “I guess it found its way out!” quite relieved there would be no holes cut into my wall.  But just as I finished that sentence…the scratching.  Oy.

My parents had the same reaction as they stood staring at the wall where the sounds were now again regularly coming from.  “How on earth did it get in there?”

My dad noticed the access panel that I had seen near a shelf above my washer.  We got a razor blade to cut where it had been painted over.  It opened up to a metal box with old telephone wiring.  I don’t have a land line, so it was useless.  We pulled the wiring away to get to the metal box.  The weird thing was we couldn’t figure out how the metal box was attached to the beam as there were no screws.  There was no way for us to remove the box so we could get into the wall.  I asked my dad if we could somehow cut the bottom of it off.  He asked if I had tin snips.  I have a surprising amount of tools for someone who doesn’t do much mechanical work, but I don’t have tin snips.  I grabbed a large pair of diagonals, the best metal cutting tool I could find in my toolbox.  Dad was able to cut a couple of inches and bend back part of the bottom of the box.

We straightened out a coat hanger and put a little perch at the bottom and lowered it down through the small opening.  We hoped that once it got over being scared from something getting close to it that it would latch on and we could pull it out.  After a few minutes of sitting very still while holding the end of the coat hanger, I thought I felt it move a few times like the bird was feeling it out.  But after a few more minutes, my legs cramping while crouching on top of my washer, I gave up and pulled it out.

By now, my boyfriend and three other guys in his house with him were watching the whole thing unfold on Skype.  He said this was more entertaining than the movie they had been watching prior to Operation Bird Removal.  He suggested we use some rope since it would be easier for the bird to grip.  Dad went down to his car and got some rope.  Down goes the rope.  I tied it to a bottle of laundry detergent and moved away as we all sat quietly, figuring by now that it was terrified from all the hubbub and noise.

We let about five minutes go by.  No sound.  No rope movement.  It was now nearing 11:00 at night.  It was a Sunday.  We all had to work the next day.

I sighed heavily and said “Well I guess it’s come to cutting a hole in the wall.  Do I even have a sheetrock knife?”  I didn’t.  More moving of the laundry appliances to give me room to crouch down to cut the wall.  We figured I should cut the hole about a foot from the floor so that hopefully it wouldn’t come out in full attack mode.  Did I mention my dad has an irrational fear of birds?  I told him he didn’t even need to be in the room or my condo for this part.  My mom stood by with a bag waiting to catch it, all of us assuming that as soon as it saw the light of day, it’d come racing out at full charge and then we’d have to chase it around the condo.

It took forever to cut a square hole big enough to fit my hand and forearm into using only a dull kitchen knife.  I slowly removed the cut square.  Mom got closer with the bag.  Nothing.  No movement.  No sound.  We poked a flashlight down there, but we still couldn’t see the floor given the acute angle.  I slowly stuck my hand in.  I had to force my forearm in and can already feel the circulation slow in my arm from squishing it against the edge of the sheetrock.  I gently move my hand along the floor from one beam to the other.  Nothing.  How is this possible?  I do it again.  Nothing.

The noise is still there.  It must be on the other side of one of the beams.  Lovely.  Not just one hole but two holes!  At least they’ll be out of sight once I put my washer back where it belongs.  I started cutting.  I was now sweating like crazy from the aerobic arm workout.  This should be on P90X.

Luckily the holes were in my laundry room, which I hadn't even painted since it's enclosed.  But yeah that was the ugly color of my condo when I bought it.

Luckily the holes were in my laundry room, which I hadn’t even painted since it’s enclosed. But yeah that was the ugly color of my condo when I bought it.

Once again, I slowly lowered my hand down the hole.  I went all the way to the beam on one side…nothing.  I moved gently to the beam on the other side.  I felt a small, trembling mass huddled up against the beam.  I said “I got it!” to my parents, and my mom moved the bag in closer.  But I didn’t have a good grip on it since I didn’t want to squeeze hard and injure it, and it was squirming.  I had to put it down and go in for a better grip.  It was really small.  I’m small and therefore have small hands, and it easily fit in my hand.  “Okay, I got it again!” I said while I gently withdrew my hand from the hole.  My mom brought the bag as close to the opening as possible, but I said “No, it’s okay.  I got it,” as I moved my other hand in to hold it in case it tried to fly.  It really wasn’t moving that much other than shaking.

I slowly took my top hand off of it once I stood up from crouching behind the washer.  It wasn’t trying to fly off or do anything.  It was just looking around.  It was the cutest little thing!  Gray feathers, yellow pointy beak, and the most adorable little white fluffy wisps so light they almost weren’t there on both sides of its head.

We decided to take it outside on my front balcony figuring that once it tasted the wind, it would want to fly off to its home.  We also brought out some crackers and broke them up into tiny pieces so it could eat something after that scary ordeal.  My mom put some water in a little dish so he could drink too.  Admittedly, I had no idea if it was a boy or a girl.  I knew absolutely nothing about birds other than they fly and poop a lot, mostly on my car and plane.  I didn’t know what it was or how old it was.  All I knew was it was cute and seemed to really like me since he didn’t want to leave.

Sitting on the balcony just after we cut Creedence out of the wall.

Sitting on the balcony just after we cut Creedence out of the wall.

The white on my arms is sheetrock dust from jamming my arm into the wall to get Creedence out.

The white on my arms is sheetrock dust from jamming my arm into the wall to get Creedence out.

He wasn’t going for the food or water.  We stuck it right up in its face, but he still wouldn’t take it.  I thought maybe he was just still so shaken up from all the drama and maybe he’d eat and drink later once he calmed down and figured out we were here to help him.

After sitting in my hands for a few minutes outside, my hands still gloved, which I did as a precaution in case whatever was down in my wall tried to bite me when I went to grab it, he started to climb all over me and settled on the back of my neck.  He seemed to have lousy balance.  When he’d sit on my shoulder, neck, or head, it was never right on the top where he wouldn’t fall off, it was a bit towards the back, so I had to move around stooped over so he wouldn’t fall.

His lousy sense of balance, always sitting aft of the center of gravity so I had to stoop over.

His lousy sense of balance, always sitting aft of the center of gravity so I had to stoop over.

No you can't go into that wall.  One is enough for the day.  Stop looking at it like that.

No you can’t go into that wall. One is enough for the day. Stop looking at it like that.

My parents started taking pictures, my dad marveling every few minutes “I can’t believe he hasn’t flown off yet!  This is so weird!”  I was kind of glad it hadn’t as I was enjoying our time together, but I still figured that any second he’d fly away and that’d be the last I ever saw of him.  We kept trying to encourage him to eat to no avail.  Then my mom pointed at the back of my neck and said “Oh!  He…um…”  “What?  Pooped on me?”  She got a paper towel to wipe it off and seemed surprised that I hadn’t flipped out.

Mom started saying that I should bring him downstairs to leave him.  “I’m not going to leave him outside until I know he can fly.  There are too many things around that will eat him if he can’t.”  But then we figured maybe we should bring him downstairs anyway to see if he could fly.  He had been flapping a little on the balcony but didn’t seem to generate enough lift to go anywhere.  He’d just kind of sink.

I was thinking of how weird this whole situation was and how lucky this little thing was that we were able to cut him out of my wall.  “What a wayward little thing!” I thought and then… “That’s it!  I’m naming him Creedence since Creedence Clearwater Revival sang the song ‘Wayward Son’!” (Read more before you correct me!)  I told my parents and then started and ended every utterance to my new pet with “Creedence” so he’d get to know his name.

Just me and my head bird.

Just me and my head bird.

This is one of my favorites.  I look at it every night.

This is one of my favorites. I look at it every night.

I was so happy with him!

I was so happy with him!

We be chillin'

We be chillin’

It must have been 11:30 at night by now, and we went inside to grab my key.  Creedence took a somewhat flying leap for the top of the refrigerator and made it (barely, but I was standing pretty close to it) and then started to walk in between all the pots and pans I had on top of the refrigerator.  Mom said “Grab him quick before he falls down behind the refrigerator and we have to move that, too!”  I retrieved him and patted him on the back while I said “That was a good job, Creedence!  You’re getting it!”  We headed downstairs for what we hoped would be a successful flight home, wherever that was.  Mom again said to put him at the bottom of a tree in the boat yard next to my condo, but after seeing some baby ducks disappear one by one last summer, victims of a hungry alligator gar that lived in the canal just behind my building, hell if I was going to leave him there until I knew he was safe.  So it was time for some flying lessons.

Creedence was still sitting up on my head, so I started to run around the huge puddles from our recent stretch of deluges and flap my arms so he could see how to do it.  “Come on, Creedence!  Like this!”  I thought my slow running could help generate lift, like how airplanes take off into the wind.  “Come on, Creedence!  You can do it!”  He, however, seemed to not care.  I stopped by the tree and said I’d count and then give him a little boost.  Mom said “Maybe you’d better get lower in case he falls again.”  I crouched down, and gave him a countdown from three and then gently tossed him upward.  He flapped but slowly settled to the ground.  “That was a good try, Creedence!” I said as I picked him up off the ground.  You could kind of see something like “Well, darn” in his face.  He climbed back up onto the top of my head and we went running around again with me flapping my arms.  Our “flying lessons” are one of my two favorite memories with my sweet little Creedence.

Seeing that I wasn’t getting anywhere and it was now around midnight, I told my parents they didn’t need to stay and that I was going to try to get Creedence to sleep so I could sleep.  My parents left, and then I started my whole song and dance with trying to get Creedence to A. not have to be attached to me at all times and B. go to sleep.  It was like having a newborn around.

I brought a small box that my mom had prepared with torn up pieces of toilet paper in the bottom with another small tray of water and some cracker crumbs up to my room figuring that since he wouldn’t leave me at all, I doubted he’d go for me leaving him downstairs and me going up to my room to sleep.  Maybe at least in the same room I could get him to sleep in his little box?  I put the box right next to my bed and sat down cross-legged next to the box.  I peeled Creedence and his grippy claws off the back of my neck and placed him down in the open box (I didn’t want to put him in a closed box).  He leapt to the top edge and then to my arm and climbed right back where he was before.  We did this about three times, each time with the same result.  I was now so tired I was getting cross-eyed and delirious.  I started begging “Creedence, pleeeease?”  What to do?  What to do?

I looked around for something else to put him in.  I’m not putting him in my bed.  I’m obsessive/compulsive and would not be happy if he pooped in my bed.  I tried putting him back in the box.  Same thing.  Now I went looking around my condo, bird on head, for something – anything! – I could use to put him in so I could get some sleep.  I spotted my dirty laundry basket from my closet.  It’s one of those pull out drawers that has a metal cage you can remove.  That’s like a bird cage!  I wasn’t crazy about putting him in something so confining (even though the laundry basket was large – I just didn’t want him in anything closed).  But it was getting late, and I was getting desperate.  I took it out and spread a towel on my floor next to the bed and put the cage upside down over it.  I put the water and some food in there and then gently placed Creedence inside.  He took a look around, was like “Screw this!”, and squeezed out through the rungs, what I had thought was impossibly small openings.  Oy.  This time I got a another towel to drape over it so hopefully he couldn’t wedge himself out.  I propped stuff up against it so he couldn’t easily push the towel away.  He got right out.

This was the default Creedence place.  Sitting on my ponytail so I had to walk with my head bent forward, and he'd poke his head up to scope out the scene.

This was the default Creedence place. Sitting on my ponytail so I had to walk with my head bent forward, and he’d poke his head up to scope out the scene.

I was getting a little frustrated just because of how late it was and how tired I was, but there was no way I could be mad at something so darned cute.  Every time I clapped eyes on him, his cuteness just melted my heart!  I said “Sugars!” and raised up the hand he was sitting on so I could kiss his beak.  He was so good about letting me get affectionate with him.  I could pet him, stroke his plume, and kiss the tip of his beak and he never pulled away or fussed.  So “Sugars!” became a regular thing with us.

It was way too late to call or text my friend who is a veterinarian.  It was also now such a long time since dinner that I was getting hungry again (I’m usually in bed around 10 and asleep by 11 or 12).  Creedence and I went downstairs for a snack, and I was hoping he’d see me eating and figure out how it’s done and want some himself, so I put a pile of crumbs on the counter for him.  He didn’t so much as give them a sniff.  I was also hoping that while I was eating, I’d come up with another idea of where to put him so I could sleep.  I didn’t.  While we were downstairs, it occurred to me that Creedence Clearwater Revival didn’t sing “Wayward Son”.  But I was so tired I couldn’t think of who did.  I used my one free hand to look it up on my phone.  Kansas.  Oops!  Should I rename Creedence?  Nope.  I had called his name too many times, and I also liked that the misnaming showed how thoroughly exhausted and frazzled I was from such a long, weird day.  It was perfectly…us.  I knew CCR had sung a song with “Son” in the name…what was it?  Oh yeah!  “Fortunate Son”.  Which also totally applied to Creedence being lucky enough to fall into the wall of someone who cared enough to hook, fish, and cut him out of a wall rather than letting him die in there.  So…um…yeah that name still worked!

I looked around my place.  It was a shambles.  Washer and dryer in the middle of my breakfast area, tools strewn all over.  “Creedence, you’re a troublemaker,” I said to him.  But, very out of character for me, I didn’t mind at all.  If a human had caused that kind of mess in my place, I would have kicked him out.

Usually perfectly clean, my breakfast area with the mess Creedence caused.

Usually perfectly clean, my breakfast area with the mess Creedence caused.

Back upstairs and since it was now past 2:00 am, it had come to this.  I put a towel on the other side of my bed, climbed onto my side, and gently put Creedence down on the towel, pointed at the towel, and said “Now you stay here, okay?” as he immediately walked off the towel and onto me.  Sigh.  I slowly lowered myself to lie down.  “Do birds poop while they sleep?” I wondered to myself.  Creedence snuggled as close and cozy as he could against my neck and chin, literally making it so that as much of his surface area was in contact with as much of my surface area as possible.  He even would stick a wing or his beak up on my chin for extra coverage.  I wondered if he was doing that because he was cold, though he wasn’t shivering, so I got up, bird in hand, to turn my A/C hotter.  I’d sweat like crazy all night since my internal thermostat turns the heat up every night, but all I cared about that night was Creedence being comfortable.  I laughed to myself that this must be what it’s like to have a child.  I had never wanted kids myself and laughed at myself now.  How motherly I was sitting with a bird on my neck that I wasn’t totally sure wouldn’t poop on me or my bed while we were sleeping…and yet I couldn’t have been happier.

This was where he wanted to sleep.

This was where he wanted to sleep.

Yep just me and my neck growth.

Yep just me and my neck growth.

I was so highly amused by the whole situation and so overwhelmed at the cuteness of it all that I gently grabbed my phone so I could get pictures of us like this.  It was only after looking at one of the pictures that I noticed something: an extra white spot that wasn’t part of my necklace.  “Ah, Creedence!  You didn’t!”  Hold bird against neck while getting up to look in bathroom mirror.  Yep.  He had.  And since it was right on the shell necklace my boyfriend had given me, the necklace and Creedence’s little feet had rubbed it around a bit, so I had an abstract chest painting of bird poop.  “Is bird poop good for your skin?” I wondered as I wiped it off with one hand since the other was holding Creedence against me.

I had to draw the line somewhere.  I went downstairs to get my hammock, one of the large, all cloth deals that you can easily cocoon yourself in.  I hung one side of it on my bedroom doorknob and hoped Creedence would accept this as a bed.  I put the water and crumbs on the flat part on the floor.  I lowered him down onto the flat part and hoped he’d go for it.  He immediately climbed up the part hanging from the door and settled onto the highest spot on the cloth before it turned to rope.  Now was he just playing around on a new toy or could I actually separate myself from him?  He was still eyeing me.  I slowly backed away.  I also reasoned that if he was so clingy, maybe he’d sleep better if he could still see me and be sure that I was there with him.  Like when babies are comforted just knowing mom is right there.  But my airplane nightlight was upstairs in my guest room.  And Creedence’s bed was on my doorknob.  Hmm…what to use for a nightlight?  My nightstand lamp would flicker and keep me up, so that wouldn’t work.  I had my phone in bed with me from when I was taking pictures of us together, so I searched for a nightlight app.  There’s an app for everything, right?  I found a cute one for kids that had a little animal on it and swirling stars.  Click.  And it was just the right amount of light.  I whispered “Goodnight, Creedence.  I love you,” and rolled over to sleep.  It was past 3:00 am.

My damned internal clock woke me up at 8:30, later than I usually sleep but not nearly enough after falling asleep around 3:30.  Sigh.  Well let’s see where Creedence has gone off to.  I figured he wouldn’t stay on the hammock all night.  I was wrong.  He was right there on top where I had left him.  “Hi, sweetie.  Good morning!” I said as I cupped him into my hand and he crawled up my arm and onto my shoulder.  I was getting very used to this.  It was so sweet, how could I not just fall totally in love with it all?

We went downstairs and I texted my friend the veterinarian while I ate my breakfast Pop Tart and Creedence still wouldn’t go for food or water.  While I waited to hear back from her, mom texted and asked “Are you an empty nester?”  I think we all assumed that once Creedence saw the light of day, he’d be off to get back to his family.  “Not yet.  And still faceplanting when trying to fly.  Think I need to get a cage.  He’s so cute and well behaved.”  I had resigned myself to the fact that I had a new pet, at least until he could fly and wanted to go back home or to stay for good if he didn’t.  Mom answered back “Maybe let it sit on your head while you walk/run.  That should help give it incentive to move.  By now it should at least need water.”  It was starting to worry me that he hadn’t eaten or drank.

I checked my phone to see if my vet friend had answered back.  Not yet.  I knew she worked many jobs, so she was always very busy and hard to reach.  While we were waiting, we Skyped my boyfriend while I showed off how cute Creedence was.  I held him up close to my laptop camera so he could see Creedence’s cute little feathery wisps.  While I talked to my boyfriend to finish telling him the story from last night after they had gotten off Skype to go back to their movie, Creedence just sat on my head, occasionally poking his head up over mine to check out the scene.

It was time for my morning run, so Creedence and I went upstairs so I could change into running clothes.  But he was on my shoulder and wouldn’t let go of my sports bra strap.  I took it off and he just hung onto it until I put the bra on my bed, then he ran up my arm and got back on my shoulder.  I fastened the hooks on my running bra and he only budged just enough out of the way so I could raise the strap to my shoulder and then he moved back on top of it.  I was realizing that everything was a little slower and more deliberate with a living being on a body part at all times.  But I was secretly enjoying the heck out of it and far too quickly getting very, very used to it.

By now, it was time for my…uh…morning bodily functions.  Creedence wasn’t going anywhere, so into the bathroom with me he came.  He did, however, decide to make another attempt at flight while I was sitting there, the sink counter apparently too temptingly close.  Flap flap flap splat.  He faceplanted into the sink cabinet door and fell to the ground and then scooted himself into the corner under the sink, always seeking out the tiniest space when he wasn’t on me.  “Good try, Creedence!  You’re lookin’ really good there!” I said encouragingly as I scooped him back up.

I then texted Mom with a picture of us and said “Creedence and I are stretching to go run.  Very hard to eat, change clothes, or do anything w/ a bird always attached to a hand, arm, shoulder, or head (head makes it easier).”

Stretching to go run!  I did most of the stretching.  He just sat on me.

Stretching to go run! I did most of the stretching. He just sat on me.

While we were stretching, I heard back from my friend the veterinarian.  She said it was a European Starling and that they make excellent pets.  I smiled widely when I saw that.  I really wasn’t sure since I don’t know anything about birds.  I was truly learning as I went along with Creedence.  So to hear that from an experienced professional was good news.  She further said that it can’t fly yet and needs hand feeding.  She said to go to Petco and told me exactly what to buy and then how to feed it once I got the hand feeding powder and small mealworms.  She said to make him a little nest-like box (ha!) and allow him to see daylight and dark.  I was already planning to go to Petco right after my run and was so glad to just know what kind of bird I had so I could look it up and study everything about it.  But then she said “If you do what I tell you, it still might not live only because sometimes they have a birth defect or head injury you can’t tell they have.”  What?  Why on earth was she saying this?!?  He was fine and full of life!  He had no apparent injuries and functioned normally except for his lousy sense of balance and being oddly attached to yours truly.  I thanked her for all the info and said that I hadn’t wanted a pet but now that one literally fell into my life, I planned to spoil it rotten, so I’d go to Petco right away and get all that stuff and hand feed it with a straw until I could get a syringe.  Then she said “Give him some water or Gatorade if you have that.  Just don’t get upset if he kicks the bucket.”  Jesus.  He was fine.  Stop saying that.  I get it.  So overly dramatic!

I got a straw from my pantry and pulled out some water and Gatorade.  I started with water since I figured that’s the basic wellspring of life for everything.  I held a few drops in a straw and then stuck the straw in Creedence’s face.  He kept turning away.  “Come on, Creedence.  You need this.”  I kept poking it at him around his beak, then stuck the end of the straw on the end of his beak.  After a few times, he finally got it and opened his mouth wide.  I slowly let the water drip out.  He drank it right up.  Great!  I got a few more drops and still had to coax him, but he took it eagerly once he opened his mouth.  He even then tried to eat the straw since he thought that was food.  We played around for a few minutes until he pooped, which I figured was a good sign, and then I fed him a little Gatorade since I figured by now he also needed some vitamins and calories.

I still thought he may want to come with me on my run so he could try to fly, so we headed downstairs.  I took a few slow jogging steps in the parking lot, and he kept sliding off the top of my head.  It was a bit windy out, but he didn’t seem to want any part of flying or riding along on my run, so I took him back upstairs.

My building maintenance guy came up with us so he could look to see where Creedence had gotten in.  I told him about the time years ago when a bird got in and showed him where I thought Creedence had gotten in.  But he knew right away.  He said they had made a nest just under the point in the roof and showed me on the first floor balcony where there was a concentration of poop that had fallen from their nest.  He said there must be a hole there that led into my wall and that Creedence fell from there.  It did make a bit more sense given the location.  He said he’d go up to the roof and put something there to cover the hole so other birds wouldn’t fall in.  I fed Creedence a little more, and since he seemed perfect and had now finally taken some sustenance, I took the opportunity to put him in his new bigger box (since he kept hopping out of the one I tried last night).  I put some more water and crumbs in it in case he had figured it out by now and then went for a quick run.

On my run, I thought back on the past half day since we had cut Creedence out of my wall.  I hadn’t wanted a pet.  Don’t get me wrong – I love animals and think most of them are painfully cute.  I had adopted a sloth named Sid Wiggy while in Costa Rica and wished I could take him home with me but knew he was better off with the experts at the sloth sanctuary there.  We had dogs when I was very young, and I loved having them around and missed the camaraderie in my life, but I didn’t have any pets now for many reasons.  I was allergic to a lot of them.  I’m obsessive/compulsive, especially about the cleanliness of my condo.  And I have white carpet in most rooms.  Not really an ideal formula for owning a pet.  But, just as my mom was shocked at how I seemed perfectly okay with Creedence pooping on the back of my neck, I had now become perfectly okay in no time at all of just cleaning up after him, and really the cleaning was minimal with such a small thing.  I still had no idea what it would be like once he started flying.  Oh yeah.  There was that.  I decided that if he was able to fly and kept looking longingly out my windows, I’d have to let him go.  So I accepted the fact that I at least had a temporary pet if not a long-term pet.  I wasn’t just sort of okay with the situation only because I begrudgingly had to be.  I truly loved the idea of having Creedence in my life.  I wondered, after just one night together, what all there was in store for us.  If he stayed with me, would he like to come flying with me (like in my plane, I mean)?  I wanted to share that with him since it was so special to me.  I also looked forward to showing him off more in front of friends and neighbors.  I liked seeing others’ reactions to his cuteness.  And while the irony was not lost on me that I had a plane that for the past month couldn’t fly and now had a bird that couldn’t yet fly or maybe just couldn’t fly at all, I thought it was funny that Erin the pilot had a pet with wings.  Because if a pet had to literally fall into my life, what else would the universe send but a bird?  It seemed the perfect fit for something I had never known I wanted or needed.  And now I was sure I both wanted and needed him.

I got back from my run and found him squished into a corner of the box, as he always liked to do.  I scooped him up and gave him a little more water and took a quick shower.  After all the hubbub of the morning and trying to get Creedence all situated, I knew I’d be late for work since I still had to go to Petco.  I quickly emailed my boss, luckily a very nice and understanding lady.  I also don’t make a habit of being late, which she knows, and I told her I’d be 15-20 minutes late and that I’d tell her later why.  I said “If I tell you now, you’ll think it’s the world’s worst and most contrived ‘why I’m late for work’ story you’ve ever heard!”

I drove over to Petco to get the food my vet friend had said to get.  I also wanted to get him a little something to keep him company in his box when I had to go out.  He seemed so desperate for company the way he clung so closely to me all the time.  I looked at the rack of stuff I was pretty sure was for dogs, but one hit me right away since it was so perfect for him and us.  It was a small bird with a big beak and a pirate hat and eye patch.  My mom called little toys like this “lovies”, and I knew he needed a lovey for when I was gone.  I grabbed Creedence’s new lovey and rushed back home to give him all this cool new stuff.

The little "lovey" that I got for Creedence.

The little “lovey” that I got for Creedence.

I mixed up the handfeeding formula and put the worms in my refrigerator for later.  I scooped him up out of the corner of the box and did the ritual with the straw to get him to open his beak and eat.  He kept turning away.  I tried and tried but he wouldn’t have it.  Maybe I fed him too much earlier?  I’ll let him rest a little while I log onto work and try again later.  I got a small towel to put on my desk next to my work laptop and sat him down in it next to me so he could “help” me work.  He seemed very uncomfortable since he kept shifting around, so I put him in my lap.  But he kept doing the same thing, so I thought maybe he was trying to sleep and my quiet typing was keeping him awake.  I made a little nest out of the towel and sat him down in it.

He wasn’t acting right and I started to worry.  He would splay out his wings and tilt his head way back so that it was almost upside down.  I texted my friend the vet.  Was he dying?  I really wasn’t sure.  I wasn’t sure what a dying bird looked like.  But he looked very uncomfortable and started twitching oddly.  I quietly called his name.  I didn’t want to bother him since he looked so miserable.  I was in the middle of writing the email to my boss and coworkers (since I thought they’d get a laugh out of my late excuse, too) when I realized he really was dying.  I tried to call my friend the vet.  She was working and didn’t answer.  I was panicking.  What could I do?  He looked awful.  It looked so painful whatever he was going through.  I didn’t want to touch him and make it worse.  He finally stopped moving in what looked like a very uncomfortable position.  “Creedence?”  I begged with fear in my voice.  “Creedence?”  I wanted so badly for him to move.  Maybe he was just sick, I kept thinking.  Maybe he’d snap out of it and everything would be okay.  By now, my boss, having not heard my late excuse, was wondering what had happened and sent me an instant message: “So what’s the story?”  I wasn’t sure what to say now.  “Um…you may need to give me a little while again.  There was a long story to it, but the bird that literally fell into my life 24 hours ago I think just died.  Started acting funny when I got back from getting food for him at Petco.  Now not moving.  Was fine before.  Thought I had a new pet.”  She said they’d give me time.  I gently picked up Creedence to see if I could feel him breathing.  I couldn’t.  I poked him.  “Creedence?”  I kept willing him to snap back to life.  He couldn’t possibly be dead!  He was fine just a couple of hours ago!  “Pretty sure it’s dead in my hand.  Not sure how to tell.”  I texted my friend the vet again.  I really wasn’t sure and didn’t want to accept that he was dead.  It was the first time I had ever watched something die.  It looked so horribly painful, and I had felt so utterly helpless.  I still didn’t want to accept it, but a long time had passed and he hadn’t moved or breathed.  I started crying.  My tears fell on him and slid off his plume.  I kept calling his name.

I still didn’t want to bury him in case he came back to life.  He would come back to life, wouldn’t he?  But I knew I had to.  I would bury him under my window so he could still be close.  I got my small garden shovel and went downstairs.  My building maintenance guy, who had met Creedence that morning on my failed attempt to take him running with me, was on the phone and thought I was bringing him to show him off again.  I mouthed “He’s dead”, but I could tell he didn’t understand me because he kept smiling at Creedence in my hand.  He hung up and walked over to me.  “He’s dead” I said, crying.  He put his hand on my back and tried to comfort me, but I was crying uncontrollably.  I walked away towards where I planned to bury him.  I sat in the grass and looked up at my window above.  He had fallen into a wall in my condo above just about 24 hours before.

I will never forget how sad that little hole I dug for him looked and how much I didn’t want to have to put him in it.  I wondered if any of his family saw me doing this.  I buried him with one of my tears still sitting on his wing.  And I’ve now cried for much longer than I actually knew him.  He never got to fly.

I suppose I should say that the joy he brought me in such a short time far outweighs the sadness I’ve experienced since he left me, but sometimes it’s hard to say that even when I see how happy I looked in our pictures together.  I just keep thinking “He never got to fly.  He never got to see the views that I have come to cherish as part of my life.”  Friends, we should never take for granted the gift of flight because it is truly a gift.

And Then There Was One

Well, I’m back to being just a girl and her plane (singular).  After I bought a Piper Seneca II (Hail Big Chief), I sold my beloved Orion to a flight school in Shreveport.  It makes me happy knowing that Orion will continue to make other pilots happy, as he has since his birth.  But it was extremely difficult to let go.

Here's us together soon after I bought him.  We both look so much younger!

Here’s us together soon after I bought him. We both look so much younger!

I bought him when I was 24 years old.  I had so little credit history then that my dad had to co-sign the loan.  I owned Orion for just over 10 years, and those 10 years were chock full of great memories brought on directly by him.  First, I soloed in that plane, though that was before I bought him.  Then I got my private, instrument, and commercial ratings with him.  There were two international trips to numerous islands in the Bahamas.  There were dozens of people I took on their first flight ever or first flight in a small plane.  Orion took me home on a wonderful trip with my father when I moved back after four years in a city way too far from home.  He took me to my first trip to Aviation Mecca in Oshkosh for the annual Experimental Aircraft Association’s fly-in (Pilgrimage to Mecca Part 1 and Part 2).  And he took me to so much in between that it’d take days to chronicle.  All this is to say, we’ve been through a lot together, and I don’t regret a single second we spent together.

And here's us together on the day of our last flight.  (Photo by Gary Michael Smith)

And here’s us together on the day of our last flight. (Photo by Gary Michael Smith)

Keeping all this in mind, you can understand that I pretty much had to emotionally disconnect myself from selling it.  Still, I would think about our times together and get so emotional that I wanted to call off the sale.  Who needed a savings anyway?  I had just paid cash, aka my savings, for the Seneca.  My, how life had changed since needing my dad to co-sign for Orion!  I tried to snap myself back from thoughts of financial stupidity of owning two airplanes.  And I kept reminding myself that I will make all new memories with Big Chief and that I could get to these memory-making places (or make them along the way) a lot faster now.  It was just a thing, after all.  Why was this so difficult?  But it’s amazing how much this “thing” had come to mean to me and what a huge part of my life it was.  You hear that expression “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you (fill in the blank), and that’s the same thing!”  It is completely true about airplanes because those buy you spontaneous traveling, meeting new people, sharing experiences, and seeing things you can’t see any other way.  Orion brought me all that and more.

We were an awesome team!  (Photo by Gary Michael Smith)

We were an awesome team! (Photo by Gary Michael Smith)

Our last flight together was exactly how I liked to spend our time: sharing the beauty of flight with others.  I took a local photographer friend and my boyfriend’s son for a flight around the city at sunset.  They both got great pictures and said they had a blast.  And hopefully their memory of Orion will last as long as mine.

Thank you, my friend!  You will always be in my heart!  (Photo by Gary Michael Smith)

Thank you, my friend! You will always be in my heart! (Photo by Gary Michael Smith)

Hail Big Chief!

Hail Big Chief!

I’m happy to announce that I bought a Piper Seneca II!  I haven’t yet sold my beloved Cessna, Orion, so for the time being, I guess my website should be “A Girl and Her Planes”!  But, for now, I’d like to introduce you to Big Chief.

Ya’ll know I like to name stuff.  So of course the new plane would need a name.  Since it’s a Seneca, I figured I’d look up famous Seneca Indians and name him after one of them.  But when I looked them up, there were no names I recognized nor any that were airplane name inspiring.  Hmm.  What to do, what to do?  Well, since the Seneca Indians live way up north around the Adirondacks and in Canada, quite a far cry from New Orleans, I started to wonder if I could come up with a better connection to my home.  And the accent paint is purple, which is one of the colors of Mardi Gras.  Here we have the Mardi Gras Indians, a truly wonderful and rich culture that is a sight to behold when they come out in full costume on Mardi Gras day and St. Joseph’s day.  I’ll never forget the first time I ran into a tribe on Mardi Gras morning.  I was beside myself with glee as I followed them around, walking in time to their unique music, and hoping they would happen upon another tribe, which they did, and at which time they exchanged songs and chants.

Well, if this big plane were to have a Mardi Gras Indian tribal appointment, he’d definitely be the Big Chief.  But all the local Big Chiefs had two cool names after “Big Chief”, like Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Big Chief Tootie Montana, and Big Chief Bo Dollis.  It hit me instantly.  Since this plane will burn about three times as much fuel as my Cessna: Big Chief Gas Guzzler.  But just Big Chief for short.  Hail Big Chief!

Hail Big Chief!

Hail Big Chief!

 

Big Chief looks good inside and out!

Big Chief looks good inside and out!

 

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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.

 

P1040831

P1040843

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!