A fellow on the Internet who is over in the UK and is hoping to eventually start his training to be a pilot has written to me with some questions. Usually they are fairly specific, the replies are short, and I just shoot them back in an email. Even when they are things that can be answered with an Internet search (“How much fuel does your plane carry?”), but particularly when they are ones that are pretty hard to find out there (“What do you carry on a long trip?”).
He wrote recently to ask some questions about instrument flight. I thought back to when I was first training for my IFR ticket and the realization that some of the questions I had at the time would have been answered easily with a little history lesson. I’m going to ignore the fact that these questions come from across the pond. There are regulation variations from country to country (you can’t fly VFR at night in Mexico, you have to be on an instrument flight plan). I’m just to answer with what I remember from my training and my current flying. I’ll probably make some mistakes and perhaps my readers will chime in with some corrections in the comments.
Back at the end of May 2022 we were looking at one our first adventures since the pandemic began. It’s amazing how few opportunities we had to get out and hope around in the little plane with things shut down, fewer gatherings to head to and so on. And for me, wearing a mask was often a reminder of how somehow a public health crisis became political, making me too aware of the political schisms and various media irresponsibilities in the country.
My brother and his son Abel were visiting my parents up on Lake Wah Wash Kesh so I decided to head north and see all of them for a couple nights. The weather for the Monday morning flight I had planned shift so that it looked difficult to get out of Norwood (fog, LIFR), so I bumped things up a little and ran around like a headless chicken to get out on Sunday evening. First, the flight I was doing with some frequency up to Ottawa.
If you read this entry you saw Dexter’s plague doctor in various spots as he crossed the country. After a summer of research on San Juan Island, Dexter returned to the east coast (Kenmore Air & JetBlue), spent a week in New Hampshire with friends, and then needed to return to Ottawa.
For the forty-first crossing I was trying to get through the northern Rockies between Seattle and Billings, Montana. This was the view on ForeFlight on the morning I was departing. That storm, which stubbornly sat over the Rockies for three days, dumped so much rain on the Yosemite Valley that it washed away a bridge and did historic damage. As far as I could tell the weather was stopped there by the heat wave that was covering the inland portions of the nation.
There was nothing terrible in that forecast. It was a four hours flight and it looked like three hours would be in the clouds. the plane has two and a half hours of protection from icing, and this looks like it would have exhausted the supply. The plane was most likely capable (and there are places to land if I felt continuing was unwise), but I couldn’t get excited about doing flying into it. So I headed south. This sort of entry is more like the Photographic Logbook that my friend Chris keeps. I should have taken more pictures.
After a dinner with Rudy the night before, I flew out of San Carlos to Las Vegas (Henderson) for breakfast, on to Albuquerque for a nap. Wichita for an early supper and pressed on to St. Louis for the night. The plane flew an excellent GPS approach to landing that night, in VFR conditions, but the help was appreciated. That is now our longest day of flying, almost 1,600 nautical miles from 7am to 10pm (local times, but still 11 hours is a long duty day).
In the morning hopped to Dayton for a Cinnabon, Scranton for fuel, and then landed (current) home field at Norwood, Massachusetts. Great weather all the way and usually a tailwind better than 15 knots.
Dexter will be spending half his summer on San Juan Island in the University of Washington’s fish laboratories studying the creatures he is most interested in. Of all of the summers he has visited the labs this will be the first time that will be enrolled in the graduate course the makes the labs such a magnet for talent in the marine biology sciences.
Commercial flights out of Ottawa are still not back to their pre-pandemic levels, but they have returned to summer travel pricing nonetheless. Dexter has a little more luggage than I imagine he would want to drag onto an airliner, and I need to go see my brother out there, so we are in the little plane together.
First I went up to Ottawa and fetched him so he could walk in his pandemic-postponed commencement ceremony. That was an excellent week of family activity. Nell cheered each graduate, “You did it! (Two years ago.)” And this coming weekend is Nell’s college reunion so she has remained behind in Cambridge. She might fly out to the west coast to fly back with me in the little plane.
He and I flew back up to Ottawa on Tuesday. Dexter needed to packed up for the summer, including things at his lab.
Most of Wednesday as Dexter packed, I checked the weather. Eventually conditions in Ottawa dictated that we would be departing IFR in the morning, but we would land in the sun in Buffalo. So I filed a flight plan for that and submitted my manifest for EAPIS. I called CBP at the Buffalo airport and they treated me like I was a huge bother since I knew nothing about their procedures. (For Burlington, Vermont I call and say, “I’m coming in tomorrow in a little plane,” and they are happy. Apparently for Buffalo I have to say, “I will be arriving in a little plane and I am seeking permission to land.”)
What is probably the greatest aviation short story recounted live, “The LA Speed Story,” has a moment in it that I only noticed after a few times hearing it. It’s just a phrase when Shul is describing how perfect the flight is: “Not a needle was moving.” Screaming through the sky faster than a scream can travel, the machine he was in was in stasis. There was no wiggle on the airspeed, altitude, or engine instruments. Riding the pinnacle of engineering, directing the thrust of a typical Southwest jet but only moving two people, the pilot’s control of the machine had the four forces acting on the plane arranged in perfect balance. The lift pulling up against the weight and the thrust pressing forward against the drag.
In aviation there is an important focus on ADM. Aeronautical Decision Making. It is the way to answer a question like, “Is it safe to fly from Santa Monica to Catalina today?” and “Can I put all this stuff in the plane with these people and fly over there for lunch?”
A lot of accidents are the result of incorrect decisions. Not all, because there are some random events, but you can trace accidents back and find a chain of events and decisions that lead from “everything looks fine,” to “oh no.” In case you are curious, ADM is not a science and, from my reading, there is a lot of wiggle room. Making a binary decision like go/no-go for a flight is very complex because you are taking a lot of factors into consideration. But having a framework for what things to consider for a decision and a way to work through the information available to you, a way to be rigorous about making the decision makes a huge difference.
There are people who restore planes. Old planes. Planes from World War One when my grandfather learned to fly. When Dexter was in his first year of college one of his suite mates disappeared after a semester because his father was killed in a small plane accident. It turned out that it was in Paso Robles, where I flew for my check rides. When I looked into it, I read that it was a faithful model of an antique plane. A plane so old that it had no throttle, only an on-off button for the engine. It was at idle or it was roaring along. And, much later, I learned that the part of the plane that failed was in a spot where it could not be inspected.
When I am getting ready for a longer flight, I read some of my previous blog entries that cover the same territory. It reminds me of the things I know about the airports nearby, maybe something about the weather patterns. Who knows what wisdom I have gathered but has slipped out of my active recall.
So I read my entry about my last flight down to Ft. Worth to drop the plane for its annual inspection. With that reminder, I knew that I’d want to fix a lunch. And maybe a snack. In the end, for my Thursday flight, I had my breakfast sandwich from Flour Bakery with a Coke on my drive down to Norwood. Then, as I flew from Pittsburgh to Louisville, I had my Bagelsarus poppy bagel with smoked salmon, some walnuts and strawberries, and a Coke with a cup of ice from the FBO. As a snack as I made my way onward to Little Rock, I had a bunch of grapes. When I woke up in Little Rock, I had a bottle of Mexican Coke with me from my luggage (impossible on a commercial flight) and a warm sticky bun from Flour Bakery and my morning Coke. That meant I made it all the way to Ft. Worth without having a meal in a fast food joint. In Dallas I went to Hillstone for an excellent lunch that carried me all the way back to Cambridge and my warm bed at home.