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October 21, 2014

Lessons Learned: Establish a Pattern of Success

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In continuing with debriefing myself and always trying to improve I had a bit of a different flight last week.  This flight wasn’t different because the mission was any different, it really doesn’t change much when it comes to local flying.  But it was different in other ways, and that is what I want to talk about.

It started within minutes of walking in the door to the squadron.  The sign-in process had changed unbeknownst to me so it took me a minute to find the paperwork and get signed in.  Then I started to update my iPad before i realized that there was no update.

I won’t bore you with the continued details, but suffice it to say that almost nothing went the way it normally does.

No mission ever goes exactly as planned so you must have good habit patterns.

No mission ever goes exactly as planned so you must have good habit patterns.

One thing I pride myself on is always following the same pattern and the same system when it comes to flying.  So when there is something that breaks that pattern, it just adds a little stress to the situation.  But that is why we use checklists to make sure everything gets done.

At times the checklists themselves are almost overwhelming.  There are checklists for every single phase of the flight from mission planning to debrief.  They are designed to ensure that every aspect of the flight is taken care of, and to make sure that even the smallest aspect of the flight doesn’t get overlooked.

After awhile you get into that rhythm that I talked about before and it becomes easier to get through a flight.  You feel like the whole thing slows down and you have more time to get the things done that you need to.  The crazy thing is you don’t have more time it is just that your ability to make it happen has improved.

Especially as a young aviator it is important to get into those GOOD habit patterns to make the whole process easier for you.  I emphasize good because you will form habit patterns no matter what, but if you aren’t careful there will be bad habits mixed in with the good.  Sometimes I get a little too comfortable with my abilities because I get into that groove and things just line up.  Then all it takes is a night like my flight last week and I get humbled back to reality.

There was nothing terrible that happened on the flight but I walked away feeling a little less confident and even more sure that these articles are going to help me a lot in my flying.  One of the reasons that I wanted to write this tonight is that I am starting my next upgrade tomorrow and I am going to need all of the help and confidence I can get.

I am starting lead upgrade training tomorrow which means that I become responsible for our entire formation.  I have to do all of the planning and make sure that we are accomplishing the objectives that need to be achieved on each flight.  It is by no means an impossible task, but it will become even more important to rely on the good habit patterns that I have formed, and build on those to effectively accomplish my training and to move on through my next upgrade.

So the lesson learned this week is how vital it is to build those good habit patterns early so that you can rely on them when the plan changes and you are forced to adapt to the situation.  Knowing your limits is an important aspect of being a good aviator, but working to expand those abilities is equally important to becoming a true aviator.


October 20, 2014

Improving Aeronautical Charts Will Improve Safety

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As a Navigator, most people really have no idea what I do when I fly.  I can’t say I blame them since there are almost no commercial aircraft that fly with a navigator, or engineer, anymore.  With the growth of GPS use there honestly isn’t much need for us most of the time.  Even the plane I currently fly on is being replaced by one that doesn’t need a navigator, or an engineer.

With that being said, a lot of the work I do outside of flying is important to the missions that all kinds of different aircraft do.  The vast majority of work that I have done for the last year or so is building charts for us to fly with.  I won’t bore you with the details of what that entails, but suffice it to say that it is essential to keeping our crews safe so they can effectively accomplish their missions.  As a navigator, utilizing my chart effectively is vital to getting us where we need to be and when we need to be there to drop off our cargo.

The rugged terrain of Alaska’s Mystic Pass, looking north. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The rugged terrain of Alaska’s Mystic Pass, looking north. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Chart reading is a diminishing skill in this modern era of GPS, which is really a shame, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter how well you can read a chart if the chart is inaccurate.  The crazy thing is that many of the charts we use today were made as many as 50 years ago.  I’m sure it is not much of stretch to convince you that quite a bit has changed in the landscape in 50 years or so.

What’s awesome is that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), who is responsible for keeping those charts updated, is actively working to do just that.  The Washington Post has a great article about the details of that program and how it is slowly working to improve safety in the greatest frontier in the US, Alaska.  They wrote about how awesome this program can be better than I could, but there is one aspect of the story that I want to focus on.

These updated charts will drastically improve safety in all parts of the US, but most of all in Alaska where, according to the article, you are 36 times more likely to die than the average US worker.  That is just unacceptable when the ability exists to drastically improve safety.  Improved technologies like airborne lasers (lidar) and radar (ifsar) are capable of creating not just better paper maps, but collecting the data necessary to improve GPS and other new devices that can save these courageous pilots’ lives.

Unfortunately, the government’s inability to pass actual budgets has stalled the project and delayed the benefits that it can bring.  There is so much benefit to be realized that some of the contractors have continued working in the hope that the funding will ultimately materialize.  It is incredibly irresponsible of those in a position to make a difference to stand idly by while they could take action that will save lives.

The aforementioned article gets into some of the specific numbers but it is a relative pittance that would be needed to have significant financial improvements to go along with the safety benefits.  At this point we can only hope that those in a position to make this happen will get past the politics and take action so that they can make the money they so anxiously pursue, but more importantly save the lives of people who deserve the best information we can give them.


October 19, 2014

Changing the Stereotypes of Aviation

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Stereotypes are the simple reality of life.  While they often have a negative connotation, that is not necessarily the case.  There are good and bad stereotypes and there is also a certain level of truth to all stereotypes whether they are positive or not.

One of the biggest things that is killing the aviation industry as a whole are the stereotypes that many people associate with the world of flying.  One of the most common stereotypes that gets talked about regularly is that you have to be a rich person to fly on anything other than an airliner.  While money can be restrictive to the aspiring aviator, there are some great references out there, most notably to me being Brent Owens, the Fixed Wing Buddha, for ways to fly as inexpensively as possible.

Personally, I think there are two much bigger stereotypes that we must change if we want to see a resurgence in the industry.

The first is that aviation is only for boys.  While there was a time that women in aviation were either flight attendants or travel agents, that just isn’t the case anymore.  I am well aware of the fact that there are substantially more men in aviation than women, but there are some serious powerhouses out there that are doing their part to change that.

One of the biggest voices, and more important examples, is Karlene Petitt.  I don’t have the space to list all of her accolades, but the short list includes being type rated in just about any aircraft that starts with B7xx, incredible author (you should check out her books), grandma, and just because she had too much spare time, doctoral student.  We need more incredible women like this that have not only made it to the top of the industry, but are actively promoting it.

We also need more of the major players in the industry to actively pursue and encourage women like Airbus recently did with their “Girls for the Future of Aeronautics” event at their Toulouse factory.  Not only do events like this actively encourage women to pursue careers in aviation, it shows them how many different careers there are in aviation which is the second major stereotype that we must change.

Tell someone that you work in aviation, and 99 times out of 100 their next question will be, “Are you a pilot?”  Not that there is anything wrong with that, I am trying to become a pilot myself, but pilots make up only a small percentage of the world of aviation.  Even in the Air Force there are tons of jobs that are not done by pilots.

There are lots of different jobs with airlines which are relatively well-known, but there are also tons of opportunities at FBOs that are relatively easily attained.  There are tons of jobs at airports that get entirely overlooked by the vast majority of the flying public.  There are jobs for aeronautical engineers, mechanical engineers, public relations, social media, and even a few jobs left for navigators.  However, we are a dying breed, which really just makes us more special.

The point I am trying to make is that aviation used to be an exciting environment that attracted the best of the best and that almost everyone dreamed about in some way, but somewhere along the way aviation lost some of that appeal.  We need to start attracting those people who don’t want to be pilots but would love to work around airplanes.

There is a growing community of avgeeks brought together by the wonder of social media, but these people would work in aviation for free.  We need to find the closet avgeeks and bring them into the fold where their passion can infect others and bring aviation into the next generation.

We are on the precipice of a major change in aviation, I can just feel it.  We really just need each member of the aviation community to bring along a friend and the industry will be changed forever.  Who knows, that friend you bring along may be the next Wright, Earhart, Lindbergh, or Armstrong.  Or they may just be a guy with a PPL and a Piper Cub, either way we will be one step closer to changing the stereotypes that are holding us back from incredible growth.


October 7, 2014

Precision Makes All the Difference in the World When Flying

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The C-130H generally flies with a crew of two pilots, a navigator, engineer, and two loadmasters.

The C-130H generally flies with a crew of two pilots, a navigator, engineer, and two loadmasters.

I have been actively flying in the Air Force for only a little over three years which makes me pretty much a baby in so many ways.  For that reason I have decided I need to start analyzing the things that happen on my flights and ensure that I am taking advantage of every opportunity I have to learn.

The reason I am writing these lessons here is that I am hoping to get feedback from others on lessons they may have learned in similar situations or maybe even totally different ones.  I have always thought that part of being an aviator is sharing thoughts and ideas to make us all better.  Conveniently, I had a good learning experience just last night to share.

So as the navigator on the C-130 it is my responsibility to ensure that the pilots take us to the right spot for us to kick a load out the back and fall where I want it on a drop zone.  In the real world this could be anything from heavy vehicles, people, ammunition, water, food, to pretty much anything that a warrior on the ground could need.

As you might imagine, it is critical that the load falls where it is needed so that it can be quickly retrieved and minimize the amount of time that the people on the ground are in danger.  While there are certain aspects of the process that are somewhat scientific, a lot of it is based on the experience and expertise of the navigator directing the plane where it needs to be at the right time.

With all of that being said, the C-130 is a crew aircraft and it takes all of us working together to get that load where it needs to be.

On a crew of 6 we had two females.  We need more of that.

On a crew of 6 we had two females. We need more of that.

So last night we executed a quality route to an airdrop which led to me calling for the drop at just the right time at which point the co-pilot is supposed to flip two switches, releasing the load so that it lands right on the desired point of impact in the center of the drop zone.

What actually happened was that the co-pilot flipped one switch and the load didn’t immediately go out.  As I said before though, I am on a crew aircraft, and the loadmaster did her job and released the load, albeit about 1.5 seconds later.  That may not seem like much, but when we received our score it was 150 yards past the point of impact.

That means that in a real-world situation the people on the ground would have had to travel about a football field and a half to get their supplies while possibly under fire from the enemy.  I think it’s pretty obvious to see why that is not ideal.

As with any time that I don’t get the score I am looking for (perfection) I began to analyze what had happened to correct it for the next drop.  Did the winds change?  Was the plane not in position?  Did I make the call late?  It could be any number of reasons, but in the end I am trying to learn and I really couldn’t come up with anything other than maybe I just called it a couple of seconds late.  So that was the adjustment I decided to make.

Unfortunately, neither the co-pilot nor the load master had told me what had happened so when the next drop came around I ended up dropping almost the same distance from the point of impact, but short instead of long.  It wasn’t until we landed an hour later that I found out what had happened, and it all came together in my mind.

Part of flying is enjoying the scenery, which you can't do if you aren't being precise.

Part of flying is enjoying the scenery, which you can’t do if you aren’t being precise.

So there are really two lessons that came from this experience, one of which I didn’t even think of until I started writing so I guess this whole idea is working for me.  The first lesson is something I have already written about in the past, crew resource management (CRM).  We talk about CRM before every single flight and this just reinforced to me how essential it is at all times.

The second lesson is how important it is to be precise at all times when flying.  In this situation it could mean a really long run for needed supplies.  During takeoff it could mean hitting a fence or tree because you didn’t climb fast enough.  On landing, it could mean you don’t quite make it to the runway which could have terrible results.

The point is not to scare anyone, but to re-emphasize how important it is to be precise in everything that you do as a flyer.  Don’t accept short cuts or a lack of precision from the people you fly with.  Set standards for yourself and when you don’t meet them analyze how you could have done better.  Ask for feedback from other people you fly with and apply it.

Being a true aviator means you never stop learning, and always work at improving yourself.


October 1, 2014

Boeing Working to Inspire Children in South Africa

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I’ll be the first to admit that I am a Boeing guy.  It’s not that Airbus makes a bad plane, I am just your stereotypical prideful American that wants all of the best stuff to come from the states.  So sue me. (please don’t, I can’t afford it)

I have written in the past about some of the cool things that Airbus is doing to educate and inspire young people to pursue aviation like the Fly Your Ideas Challenge and the Airbus Lycée.  I’m happy to see that Boeing is following suit with their newest joint venture with South African Airways.

One of the things that I spend a lot of time thinking about these days is how to get young people, including my own kids, excited about aviation.  Kids like my son are easy because they just love airplanes, but there are so many that never even see a life in aviation as a possibility because they don’t realize all of the opportunities that exist.

That is why this venture is so cool.

Boeing and South African Airways have taken a normal shipping container and turned it into a mock up NextGen 737 including a flight deck, passenger cabin, and even a demonstration engine.  This is the kind of hands on experience that kids need to really spark their interest in aviation and inspire them to pursue a career.

What makes this shipping container aircraft even more valuable is that it is accompanied by actual people who have careers in aviation that can show the kids that anything is possible.  They can be role models for these young South Africans and give them hope that they can actually pursue their dreams no matter how lofty they may be.

As a kid I always loved airplanes and would stop playing to look up as they flew over my house.  That really hasn’t changed since I grew up, and I hope to find a way to do my part with inspiring young people who have the same dreams that I did, but just don’t know how to make it a reality.

I’m glad to see that Boeing and South African Airways are doing their part as well.


July 20, 2014

Disney’s Planes Fire and Rescue: A Sequel That is Just as Good as the Original

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The star of the show is once again Dusty, but he has more great company in this movie.

The star of the show is once again Dusty, but he has more great company in this movie.

With all of the negative press in aviation right now, it was really refreshing to take a step back and just enjoy a beautifully made movie about planes.  Planes Fire and Rescue is the much-anticipated (at least for avgeeks) sequel to the Planes movie that was released last year during Osh13.

I was so excited to see it that I couldn’t wait to get back home to go with my kids, so I just went by myself.  After I got past the creepy looks people were giving me as they walked in with their kids, I was able to sit back and just enjoy the show.

I’m not one to just recap a movie because you can get that on IMDb or a dozen other movie sites.  I prefer to focus on the sights and sounds of the planes which is what we all love anyway.

One of the first things that really caught my attention in this movie was the excellent use of music to add to the story.  The first occurrence was the playing of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck as the fire crews are preparing to fight a fire.  It really added to the momentum that was building in the movie.

There were also a couple of great songs by Brad Paisley that I really enjoyed.  One in particular is called All-in that is a great tribute to all firefighters, but particularly to those who fight wildfires.  This song will never have the following of Let it Go from Frozen, but it deserves even more attention because of the message it shares.

To go a long with the great music, there was of course the great sound of airborne engines.

Cabbie is probably my favorite character, but I am biased.

Cabbie is probably my favorite character, but I am biased.

My personal favorite of course was the old cargo plane “Cabbie”.  They never say exactly what type of plane he is, but my best guess is that he is Fairchild C-119 better known as the Flying Boxcar.  Sure I’m a little biased since my current squadron flew them back in the day, but it is a great plane that sounds even better.

I even enjoyed the helicopters that are an essential part of the firefighting effort.

There was also a lot of great little one liners from the various characters in the movie that even make grown-ups laugh.  I actually enjoyed these characters a lot more than the supporting characters in the first movie.  They did a much better job of translating real people into these characters, much the way that the Cars movies did.

The story had its typical unrealistic and cheesy parts just like any Disney movie, but I really enjoyed the overall message, and the real emphasis that was placed on the team in this movie.  I can only hope that it will strike at the heart of more young people and get them excited about flying.

At the end of the day it was a highly entertaining movie with stunningly beautiful animation.  It is the perfect movie to sit down and enjoy with your kids, or even by yourself.


July 16, 2014

Want a Flying Motorcycle? You can get one in a couple years.

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The three wheel design, along with a carbon fiber body, allows you to lean into turns.

The three wheel design, along with a carbon fiber body, allows you to lean into turns.

For as long as people have tried to develop a flying car, I am a little surprised that no one has succeeded yet.  There have been some models that had short lives, but nothing that has really entered the market and stayed there for awhile.

That being said, modern technology is helping companies to get closer and closer.  I believe it was just last year that there was quite the buzz around Terrafugia and there flying car that is in development.  It looks pretty promising, but they haven’t had much to say since last year when they announced their plans to develop an electric VTOL (vertical take off and landing) version.

Maybe that has been the problem to this point.  These companies are looking so far into the future that they don’t create anything of real value to the customer right now.

On the other hand, PAL-V (personal air and land vehicle) out of The Netherlands has a pretty cool gyrocopter/motorcycle that is probably the most realistic option I have seen.  The PAL-V One is not only multi-functional, but it looks pretty cool too.


After a short 10 minute transition you can fly off into the sunset.

After a short 10 minute transition you can fly off into the sunset.

You can find more of the specific details about the PAL-V One in this BBC article, or on the company website, including lots of cool pictures and videos.

Oh yeah, just in case you thought you could save your lunch money to buy one, they are going for just under $400,000.  For that much you could buy a decent little plane, and a nice car, but what would be the fun in that?  You’ll also have to wait until some time in 2016 to have it delivered, but it is probably worth the wait.


July 15, 2014

The Many Faces of a Flying Career

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Weather can affect your flying in unexpected ways so learn how to deal with it.

Weather can affect your flying in unexpected ways so learn how to deal with it.

I think most of us grow up dreaming about flying fighter jets or jumbo jets high in the sky, or fast through the mountains.  That is exactly the way it works out for some people, and for other people it works out for them flying smaller planes in remote destinations that they love more than they ever expected.

I know my aviation career hasn’t followed the path that I thought it would, and I’m okay with that.  In fact, it wasn’t until about a year ago that I realized how much I actually loved aviation.

I’ve worked in aviation for about 7 years now in a number of different roles, and there has been good and bad in all of them.  Working at an FBO provided an opportunity to see some incredible planes, meet some famous people, and becoming friends with people who changed my life.

In my four years in the Air Force I have met some incredible people, visited some incredible locations, and experienced some incredible struggles.  That is the part of a career in aviation that most people don’t tell you about.

Before I go any further let me be totally clear that I feel it is completely worth it, but there are some aspects that I had never anticipated.

I have spent far more time in a classroom than I have a cockpit.  Now maybe that is more of a factor in the military flying community, but either way you have to be ready to do a lot of learning.  That learning also never really stops.  Whether you are a weekend flyer, or a 747 pilot, if you want to be good at what you do then you can’t ever stop learning about flying.

There is also a lot more to learn about than just stick and rudder skills.  In fact, there is more to learn about flying than just flying.  There are all kinds of other areas that you can learn about to make you a true aviator rather than just a pilot.

Safety is one of the biggest topics you need to spend time learning about.  Read accident reports and learn as much as you can from others’ mistakes.  I know some pilots are intimidated by those types of things, but it can only make you better.

The reason this is on my mind right now is I am currently attending a two-week power point fest that makes me fall asleep just thinking about it.  However, it is an essential part of my career that will open doors that would otherwise be inaccessible.

It is entirely possible that something I learn during this training could save my crew’s lives someday.  Hopefully, I will never have to use any of it and we will remain safe anyways, but it is reassuring to me to know that the knowledge will be there in case I ever need it.

I guess what I am trying to say is to not be afraid of the many aspects of becoming an aviator, but to embrace those opportunities to learn.  With any luck you will never have to use it, but just ask Capt Sullenberger’s passengers if they are glad he took some extra training.


July 9, 2014

Mountain Flying to Restock Fish

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Two of my favorite things in the world are fishing and flying.  As luck would have it, there are some great videos on YouTube by Ted Hallows, about dropping fish out of planes into Utah mountain lakes.

The challenge with these high mountain lakes is that there is no way to get a truck full of fish up there to restock the lake.   So the answer is to fly a plane up there and have it make low passes over the lake and dump the fish out.  It looks like a lot of fun to me, but you be the judge:

If you want to see some more feel free to check out Ted’s YouTube channel.


April 1, 2014

Opening Day: Planes and Baseball, Does it Get Any Better?

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I have been in a complete and utter rut recently, mostly because I feel a little overwhelmed with managing, work, school, family, and the things I want to do like talk about planes.  As the country song goes, “sounds like life to me”, and it is.

Nothing has really changed today, but honestly it is hard to not say something about Opening Day, and in particular a picture I just saw on Twitter.

After planes, baseball is my next love and one of my favorite things at a baseball game, or really any event are the flyovers.  Probably my most memorable I saw in person was a flight of F-16s at a BYU football game that seriously looked like they dipped into the stadium.  It was nuts.

As cool as that one was, I think the above picture would have been even more memorable in person.  It doesn’t hurt that it was at my favorite ballpark, The Ballpark in Arlington (I know they sold out to a sponsor, but it will always be the Ballpark to me).

I don’t really have much to add as the picture speaks for itself, but I will mention that the planes are from the Cavanaugh Flight Museum.