Not only to fly, but to bring the world's eyes...skyward.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Aircraft Stewardship, Part One: Tiedown

Teach a fellow pilot the basics of tying down, before it's too late.
Perhaps I should have started this series with, "If you can't afford a hangar, don't buy an airplane," but even those who normally do well at keeping their machines out of the merciless elements must, sooner or later, take them somewhere a hangar isn't available. Today at Sun 'n Fun 2011, we had an awful reminder of just how vulnerable our birds are when we have to rely on nylon to keep them from becoming UAVs in a thunderstorm.

To the neophyte, tying an airplane down can seem, well, a little OCD. And anyone who actually thinks there's a few right ways and a lot of wrong ways to do it might seem downright certifiable. That would be me: a card-carrying member of EAA, AOPA, APA, and the lesser-known ARPA (Anal-Retentive Pilots Anonymous). I'm "that guy" at every airport who lands 30 minutes early just to wipe the bugs off with a bucket of clear water and a sponge, while they're still hot 'n juicy. My plane's belly (when I had one) was either clean or spotless, and I was never at a loss for something to do in the hangar, if only I could get out there.

I hate seeing airplanes get hurt or destroyed, and hate seeing it happen when their pilots aren't even with them worse. My first instructor's first instructor made a point of teaching him how to tie an airplane down very early in their time together, and I carry the tradition on with my students, (when I have one).

Like a good story, a good tiedown has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I'm going to call the bottom of the tiedown the beginning.

The Beginning: "Nothing beats a tight bottom."
Obviously, a ring of heavy metal set into a well-maintained paved surface isn't likely to give up much to a little airplane trying to use it for a dance floor, but when we're away from home, sometimes we have to park on crumbly concrete or grass. This isn't the time to get some really good tent stakes from Wal-Mart and call it good. Buy a set of portable tiedowns from Sporty's or your own favorite pilot shop, and use them as directed. Good beginning.

The Middle: "Get a rope!"
Again, cheap and/or dried, brittle, weather-beaten nylon or, God forbid, even lesser-quality rope for less-expensive purposes is not the way to go here. If your rope looks like the last time it bore a color was the Carter administration, or if it's got a great start on the afro hairdo your dad had back then, save it for someone who considers their airplane a "tool." Tools can be replaced, after all. Airplanes can't - each is unique, like us.

The End: "(Insert your favorite 'knot' pun here)"
This is the part I see done wrong more often than (ugh!), knot. When you tie an airplane down, you're doing much more than merely slipping it onto a loop you've made from each of three pieces of rope. The idea is to put the airplane securely at THE END of those ropes, with a little bit of tension on all of them, so that it's being held down tight and no possibility exists of the ropes accumulating any slack. If you don't believe me, try breaking a door down, starting with your body right up against it. Get the idea?

The way I was taught to do this is to put the rope's end through the tiedown ring, from the side nearest the tiedown's anchor first, pull it tight, then make a simple, single half-hitch (the simplest of all, and what most people think of as a "basic," knot) in the rope as close as you can possibly get it to the tiedown ring. After that, I make another series of double half-hitches right up against the first one to lock it into position.

You can also score big OCD points if you start with the airplane well-centered in the tiedown, so all the tiedowns bear equal loads from similar angles, each hopefully close to 45 degrees to the ground, and tie down the wings first, then pull the tail tight, taking out any slack that might otherwise exist in the wing ropes. When you're done, your plane will be bonded to the ground tighter than you were to your instructor after your first lesson in spins, and any wind that comes will have to be strong enough to pull the airplane's tiedowns from the ground or break the ropes themselves, because the way you tied the ropes to the plane won't be the weakest link.

My heart goes out to the hundreds of pilots and aircraft owners who suffered the trauma of seeing their planes damaged or destroyed at Sun 'n Fun 2011. But we have a long summer of airshows still ahead, and if any of us can help a fellow pilot keep his plane safe when the next thunderstorm zeroes in on Oshkosh, Dayton, Cleveland, or any other of our gatherings, we should. Get involved. Meddle. Watch out for each other out there. If you see a plane not tied down right, try to show its caretaker what's missing, or if there's no other way, provide it yourself. It might be your plane next time.

More info on this subject is available in an FAA advisory circular at

Monday, March 28, 2011

My first bloghop...hope I don't trip!

Multi-tasking. I used to think I did it well. I can re-tie my tie, scarf down a crew meal, figure a top-of-descent point, make an arrival announcement, and prioritize my first five trip trades of the month at four-hundred knots in the five minutes of level flight between Dallas and Austin, but with my novel's self-imposed release date of July 26 rattling in the distance, I have to steel myself to not be deer-in-the-headlights about everything left to do beforehand. Blogging effectively about my writing is one such thing. So I'm participating in Cali Cheer Mom's blog hop--and hoping to God I don't commit the cyber-equivalent of walking in with t.p. stuck to one of my left feet.

Yes, folks, I am a pilot. But I'm also a son, brother, uncle, husband, and father to a family of non-pilots, and a plane crash and spinal-cord injury survivor. I'm also a nephew of a man they say I've never met, who was killed in the skies over France sixty-seven years ago this week. A Silver Ring was inspired by his short life's deep affect on mine.

I'm posting a chapter per month, roughly the first half of the book, from January until July at http://www.asilverring.com/p/story.html. Copies go on sale on the day my son's story, and thus my own, began--July 26th.

So please don't think my blog, or my book, is about becoming, or even being, a pilot--or anything else. They're about having always been what we're meant to be, and why. Thanks for reading and supporting new authors!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

DCA tower reverts to "Channel Z"

The headlines blare, in 48-point Tsunami Bold font,

"PILOTS FORCED TO LAND WITHOUT HELP FROM TOWER!"

Can we stop screaming long enough to don our oxygen masks? Please? Thanks. Now...

First of all, there isn't a person alive on this Earth who was ever going to "help" those pilots land. Air Traffic Control's primary function is singular: to keep aircraft from swapping paint. Period. Controllers do a marvelous job of fulfilling that and their secondary mission to keep them from contacting terrain, obstructions, and thunderstorms. They also provide much-needed periodic doses of levity for pilots and each other as a byproduct, but honestly, that's it. Oh, and they do call the fire department and/or 5-O if/when necessary, but as for "helping" airline pilots with up to forty years' experience land, "Negative, Ghost Rider, the logbook is full."

Every tower in the world could get sucked into the twilight zone simultaneously and no passenger would ever know the difference. Airliners have collision avoidance equipment (Mode S transponders and TCAS) that act independent of, and has primacy over, ATC instructions. Pilots also have biological photo-imaging devices and software (eyes and brains) with a virtually uncorruptible down-time minimization bias (survival instinct) built in that virtually guarantees they will not intentionally attempt any rogue airline mergers. Rules and standard procedures make operations from airports that have never had a control tower as smooth and safe as a suburban intersection with a four-way stop sign -- that is, if drivers had to prove their competence every year or so and could lose their licenses forever by making a mistake.

Second, tower (or "local," as it's called in the ATC community) exists mostly as a runway utilization manager. They "clear" aircraft to either take off or land on the active runway based on their own authority to ensure no other aircraft are doing anything that will interfere. That clearance either comes or is withheld without regard for whether pilots have lowered their landing gear, done their checklists, or ensured that an F5 tornado isn't sitting smack in the middle of their flight path. That's why pilots get paid "so much, just for flipping switches and pushing buttons." For a controller, it's all about keeping a certain-size bubble of air around every airplane from getting popped by another plane - and thereby getting themselves "popped" later.

If a tower controller falls asleep, gets locked out, or is abducted by Tom Cruise's Mothership, he isn't going to be able to clear any planes to take off, either, which, short of the plane ahead of them being left unable to taxi after landing (maybe the controller forgot to "tell" them to lower their landing gear!), is the only conceivable way that runway isn't going to be clear for another that's been cleared to approach.

Finally, all of aviation is built around the idea of safe recovery from failure. It's almost as ingenious as the Constitution (and followed far more closely), and it's how we've amassed the enviable safety record that allows passengers to act as if they've just had their birthday taken away when a flight that couldn't be safely operated at any reasonable cost, cancels. In the old days of tube-driven radios, a thin filament of metal was all that made a radio a radio and not a paperweight.

When a good frquency suddenly reverts to Channel Z (all static, all day, forever), we've got that covered. As Robert Stack, playing self-admiring Captain Rex Kramer in the 1980 classic, Airplane!, would say, we do "just what they're expecting us to do." We follow our flight plan - religiously. And by "religion" I mean something far closer to Sharia Law than Zen.

These pilots had already been cleared for their approach, which means they were guaranteed separation from other aircraft all the way to the runway. Since landing is the reason for, and thus the expected outcome of any approach, it's what anyone tracking the flight would plan for. If the communications failure had occurred aboard the plane, the controller would have directed other planes as needed to clear a path for the quiet one. Put the failure on the other end of the wireless, however, and pilots still have no logical choice but to land, if possible, on that first approach. The only other thing they could possibly do is execute a busy missed approach procedure which, at DCA, could provoke a military response to any mistake. They'd then have to fly another approach that may, or may not, rate a landing clearance. Knock out a control tower at a busy airport and, employing this flawed logic, you'd eventually get a lot of airplanes taking evasive action awfully close to the ground and/or each other, and ultimately running out of fuel and being truly "forced" to land somewhere probably far less hospitable than their stricken destination airport. And this, still, without any "help" from the tower, by the way.

The next time you see something in the news media that frightens or angers you about flying, please, please talk to someone who works in The System and get their perspective. I'm always open to questions here. But regardless, next time you fly, take a dramamine (and maybe a shot of your favorite aperitif) and rest assured there's far more than one of everything that's truly needed to keep you from becoming a statistic--and not a single one of them is free.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Romance and Reality

J. Relay Doggenheimer
Shortly after my early-rising tween son let his Jack Russell Terrier, Relay, outside this morning, he dashed upstairs to wake us with, "This is the best day ever! Relay got his first kill! He got a mole!" A few jarring moments of unsanctioned first-thing-in-the-morning activity later, the dog's prey was identified as not a mole, but a baby rabbit.  Who knew the balance between the Best Day Ever and the Worst Day Ever, it turns out, lay in the arrangement of a few genes on a rodent chromosome that make it become a mole or a rabbit. Yet another pre-morning-coffee debriefing with mini-me ensued.

The romantic in him saw his purebred hunting dog bounding merrily through the hilly countryside, Born Free playing in the background, and vanquishing a common pest his parents despise for the damage it does to our yard. But then reality crashed the party, transforming his mutt into J. Relay Doggenheimer, aka Death, the Destroyer of Rodent Worlds. The sole survivor of Relay's morning raid was a single, helpless baby bunny, for which international law obligates, nee mandates, us to provide reparations of food, shelter, healthcare, and and endless supply of newly-released PS3 games.

I’ve had a few people comment on my catchphrase, “Reality has a heart; Romance has a brain,” and I’ve assumed, perhaps without good cause, that my meaning will be clear, particularly after people read the free chapters I'm posting from A Silver Ring until its July release. Beta readers have seen in it exactly what I hoped to show: a balance between Fate’s magic and Life’s uncooperative chaos that rings true. For those who haven't yet read it, however, this key component of my branding strategy might still need explanation.


Reality has taken over our, well, reality. Nobody seems to care a whit about make-believe anymore. People would seemingly prefer to take a kind of Mythbusters approach to their entertainment, leering into real people’s real (boring) lives, watching them do real (boring) things (or, occasionally, even nothing) and being shown they’re not as fun, exciting, difficult, or rewarding, as one might think. The underlying message seems to be, “See? There’s no such thing as princes, princesses, magic, destiny, or love and, rather than being duped into investing your finite attention in a “fake” story that (OMG!) never really happened, concentrate instead on the mediocrity all around you and be assured that no one else ever does or witnesses anything truly extraordinary, either.”

I don’t get it. Those “realities” aren’t particularly funny, nor inspirational—and rarely even truly sad. They have no real stakes. They have no heart. My reality, and that of everyone I know well, by contrast, does. People get hurt. People are victimized. People die. And yes, occasionally, people win against all odds, like I did after my 1994 plane crash/spinal cord injury. It’s just that when we see it happen through the unflattering lens of a handheld camcorder, sans theme music and pretty actors smiling impossibly white smiles and tossing their hair in slow motion, it loses its romantic punch.

On the other hand, like many writers (cro-magnon “fratire” author Tucker Max being one obvious exception), I consider myself a romantic. A recovering romantic, to be perfectly honest. I say recovering because I consider it a character flaw, a foible, endearing though it may be to most women and the very few men capable of admitting it without fear of sudden-onset-homosexuality. I see it as such because of a long series of heartbreaks I endured as a boy and young man as I very slowly came to "realize" love just doesn’t work like it did in any of the really corny television and movies I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch growing up.

While my parents and siblings were out living their post-adolescent lives, circa 1980, I was often found trustworthy to stay home alone, free to torment cats with impunity, set random fires -- and note how no one ever walked down The Love Boat’s gangplank without their heart’s desire on their arm.

My sibs, each my elder by at least six years, all married people who, for all I knew, were only their first or second serious love interests when they were eighteen or twenty years old. My parents married when they were barely twenty. So it seemed entirely plausible to me, as my pituitary gland began to order my first shipments of testosterone, that when I really, truly fell in love with someone, getting from there to the altar was just a matter of learning, then making, all the right moves. Making yourself completely vulnerable (and thus irresistible) by showing a love interest how strongly you felt with words, deeds, and gifts was always step one.

Eh, bebe, voulez-vous coucher avec moi?
Despite having embarked on a love-note writing campaign that could have led to a great career writing for Harlequin, I didn’t get to see those fireworks Peter Brady did when I got my first kiss. I had to live with the fact that a platonic girl friend of mine, who was inside the locked doors of our school one day and knew I was crushing on another girl who “luckily” was out in Ohio’s winter with me and needed to get back inside to get warm, forced my heart’s desire to kiss me to be let back inside. So basically, my first experience of physical intimacy with a woman was an act of prostitution, funded by extortion, and performed under duress. Now, is that not just as precious as pink pajamas? Not exactly what I’m wishing for my son’s first foray into manhood…

I hadn’t yet heard J. Geils’ Band’s Love Stinks, and Queensryche had yet to even form, let alone record I Don’t Believe in Love, but I really could have used those, or even just some self-effacing, maybe even embarrassing truth-in-stalking disclosures from my elders about their experiences with the opposite sex, just for a little reality check. I was in for quite a few rude, which I admit now seem only bittersweet, awakenings. Let’s just say they undoubtedly still know who they were.

I thought I’d finally cracked the code for the first time at age 22, and gladly paid the 2-months’ salary to prove it, but it turned out I’d only signed up to learn an almost unbearable object lesson in the relatively short half-life of physical attraction in the face of crisis. I became an embittered cynic, a turnkey reality-tv fan years ahead of its time, and I stayed that way until I fell in love—the real kind that crisis only tempers—with my wife.

She’s not out of the woods just yet, however. That lonely boy who never once managed to transform a crush into love is still hitch-hiking a dark, empty highway somewhere in her enigmatic, otherwise cocky husband’s mind, kicking the daylights out of a can along the way and swatting at the swarm of question marks buzzing around his head.

So when I inject romance into my writing, I do it with due consideration for that sad character and write with my brain, which, thankfully, did eventually learn to translate for my heart what it could never understand.

Reality has a heart; romance has a brain. To me it means there’s just too much magic in this life for anyone to pretend it never happens, but those of us who've fallen too many times to take even one foot off the ground can’t just write blank check after blank check to people with imaginations as simple and predictable as pixie dust.

An aviation love story...

Twilight landing at LAX

Martinez Canyon Rescue