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2016+ Year in Review

I know it is cliche, but I really can’t believe another year has gone by.  Even more unbelievable to me is how much I have actually done this year, and some of the incredible experiences that I have had.

With all of the time I have spent all over the Pacific I have neglected this writing, which I am just now realizing was a sort of therapy that I have also been missing out on.  Such is life though and all I can do is work at getting back into it.

So rather than try to cram everything into one post, I am going to work on getting out one a week or so which will hopefully give me some time to really internalize everything I have learned this year, while at the same time not overwhelming myself and then just giving up.

So here is a quick overview of some of the things I will be writing about over the next few months:

Operation Christmas Drop 2015–  I have mentioned this before, and a year later I am going to actually get to it.  I was on a crew for this operation which was an amazing opportunity to fly all over the islands of the Pacific bringing Christmas joy to people who live about as remotely as you possibly can in this world.

Cope North 2016-  This is a massive exercise that takes place in Guam every year involving 8-9 different countries in this instance.  Once again I was on a flying crew, which was one of the best crews I have ever flown with.  This was the first time I had ever trained with fighter aircraft which was a whole lot of fun.  As well as visiting some pretty historic sites.

Balikatan 2016-  Another large-scale exercise but in the Philippines.  For this exercise I went as a mission planning cell chief working at a location we had never fully manned before.  While I didn’t get to do any real exciting flying, it did really open my eyes to the time and effort that is required to pull off these vitally important exercises.

Red Flag Alaska 2016-  Surprise, surprise, another exercise, though most people who have interest in military aviation have likely heard of it, or at least the Nellis AFB version.  While I was back to flying for this exercise, it is structured differently than the other exercises so I also did a massive amount of mission planning.  It was some of the most incredible flying I have ever done, with a fun crew, and some amazing off duty time in the awe-inspiring Alaskan mountains.

Becoming an evaluator  Not exactly an exciting flying adventure, but something that has shaped the way I view being a flyer.  I have written numerous times about how much I love instructing, and evaluating has only deepened my love of instruction, but on a much deeper level.

Operation Christmas Drop 2016-  This year I went as the mission planning cell chief and there are few times I have worked so many hours and felt so completely fulfilled by what I have done.  To be very clear, there are a lot of people who did a lot of work to make this operation happen, and it was an honor to be a part of it.  It will be hard to beat the value of this experience in my life.

So there it is.  I am sure I forgot events that I will write about as well.  It seems so short listing them all like this, but I am excited to go back and relive all of these experiences again.  I know it will put a lot of smiles on my face, and I hope that you will find some enjoyment from reading about it.  Thank you for all of your support in the past, and I look forward to your comments in the future.

January 6, 2017 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Chair Flying May be the Best Free Thing You Can Do to Be a Better Pilot

Who would have guessed that something so simple could be one of your greatest assets toward becoming a better pilot?

Who would have guessed that something so simple could be one of your greatest assets toward becoming a better pilot?

Learning to fly is expensive.

I say that a lot, and so do a lot of other people who are associated with flying because it really is.  In the never-ending effort to reduce the cost of becoming a pilot there is something that anyone can do that I promise will save you time and in turn money.

Chair flying is a learning tool that is utilized by pilots in all stages of flying that has an incredible impact on your abilities as a pilot.  It is an amazing way to learn flows, checklists, improve your radio communications, and everything else it takes to be a pilot.  Something that can be that beneficial must be some complicated system that you have to pay a bunch of money for, right?  Wrong.

Let me take you through the simplest form of chair flying.

You sit in a chair and go through every single step of a flight in your mind.  The end.

At its heart, it really is that simple, but it can be more effective with a few basic tweaks.  Find somewhere quiet where you aren’t going to be distracted by a TV or other conversations.  Have your checklist, kneeboard, or whatever other things you fly with close at hand.  You may even put on your headset to block out the noise and make it feel more real.  Another asset that can really improve the experience is a printout of the cockpit in which you will be flying.  Even pulling an image up on your computer screen can be beneficial.

Then simply go through every step of your flight from beginning to end.  That means start from the moment you walk up to the airplane and go through how you will untie it, or get it out of the hangar, and do your external inspection.  Think about opening the door and where you will put everything (commonly referred to as building your nest) and how you will set everything up to get ready to fly.  Think through each step of the pre-flight including any radio calls or systems checks you would do if you were actually flying.

Go through engine start actually touching each of the switches and dials on your printout or computer screen that you will be manipulating or monitoring including in your mind what you expect to see from all of the gauges.  Make the radio call to ground when ready to taxi and lift your feet to release the brakes moving your hand forward to increase the throttle.  Look left and right to clear for traffic and adjust the throttle as necessary.

I could keep going, but I think you get the idea.  Even just writing this out got me in the mindset of flying and each of the steps that I go through every single time I fly.  It helps in building that muscle memory, and maybe more importantly, a mental memory of repeating those tasks over and over again until it just becomes second nature.  That way when you get in the plane you will have an even better understanding of what you will be doing and you should feel less stressed.

This is exactly why we have crew briefings in the military.  We go through every step of each mission thoroughly to make sure that we are all on the same page.  Some things are covered multiple times in separate briefings to reinforce their importance.  For more complex missions we often spend days going over the mission to ensure that every crew member fully understands their role.

Now flying a 172 into a small airport after an hour is not as complex as a multi-ship formation flight that can cover many hours, but the principle is equally effective no matter what you are flying.  One of the best parts about it, is that it is 100% free.  If you know you are struggling with a certain task, say stalls, then while you are eating your breakfast walk through each of the steps in your mind considering how your hands and feet will move, what you will hear, and what you will see.  After doing it right in your mind, do it again and again until it just becomes second nature.

Becoming a good pilot is a never-ending process of learning and growth that requires dedication to that improvement.  It is not always feasible to get out and fly everyday for 3-4 hours, unfortunately, but it is possible to spend time every day going through the motions in your mind so that you will be ready when you do finally get to slip the surly bonds of the earth and take flight.

February 13, 2016 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Instructing May Be the Most Rewarding Thing I Have Ever Done

The mighty Herc is a dream to fly and there is always more to learn.  I learned a lot the last couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

The mighty Herc is a dream to fly on and there is always more to learn. I learned a lot the last couple of weeks, so stay tuned.

I wrote this post once and my site decided it didn’t like it so it all disappeared.  I guess I didn’t convey the message I should have so I will just have to give it another go.  Or maybe I just needed to read Ron Rapp’s excellent post on instructing to help me realize how important it is.

I don’t think there is much doubt about how much I love flying on the C-130.  It is such a versatile air frame that can do so much, especially when you consider how bulky of a plane it is.  As much as I have enjoyed flying on the Herc, I have found something that has been even more rewarding in the last few months.

The last thing that I did before leaving Arkansas was earn my instructor qualification.  Because I moved shortly thereafter, I never had the opportunity to instruct before leaving.  Add to that a good amount of leave and necessary ground training, and I went about three months without flying, which was essentially torture.  After a few indoctrination flights here in Japan, I was finally able to do some instructing, which has been more fulfilling than I could have expected.

It is such an incredibly amazing opportunity to share some small bit of knowledge with young, developing aviators.  I don’t claim to know everything, in fact the more I instruct the more I realize I don’t know, and the more I learn.  However, it has been so much fun to help build on the knowledge base that they already have.

All of my students have been fully qualified navigators which is really an interesting dynamic because they are capable of flying all by themselves, but they need me there for some particular aspect of their development.  What has been one of the most amazing things to me is that most of them don’t really need a ton of instruction, they really just need someone to put them in the right situation so they can learn from experience.

In reality, they really just need someone to express confidence in them so that they will have that confidence in the future when they look over their shoulder and there is no one there to help them find a solution to a problem.  I have been blessed with many of these types of instructors and I would be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to publicly thank some of them.

Jesse for being the first to really instill that confidence in me.  Right after I finished my initial C-130 training there was a decent chance that I would be up for a no-notice checkride by an evaluator from Air Mobility Command (essentially the people responsible for all mobility assets in the Air Force e.g. C-130, C-17, C-5, KC-10, and KC-135).  As you can imagine it was a little intimidating for a guy that had only flown without an instructor about three times at this point.  Jesse just told me not to worry because he had flown with me and he knew I would be just fine.  Just a few simple words, but they gave me the confidence I needed to do exceptionally well on my checkride, despite the best efforts of the pilot.

Ryan for always looking at the big picture when it comes to instructing.  There are all kinds of crazy minutiae that you can get into as an instructor, especially when you know as much as Ryan does, but he had an incredible ability to give you just the right amount of instruction so that you learned what you needed to learn, but never felt overwhelmed.

Tiffany for teaching me the ropes of Afghanistan, and showing me just how much fun it can be on the Herc.  She has this uncanny ability to go from all business to total goofball in the blink of an eye while at the same time remaining totally professional through it all.  She could always set me at ease and help me to understand how to work through problems in a way that could make the flying even more fun.

Chris for never letting me get by with just enough.  About a year ago as I was progressing through my lead upgrade training he realized that I had a pretty good break between flights due to the holidays and other constraints, so he came up with a couple of scenarios to work through.  It forced me to get into the books and made me realize just how much we have to understand to lead a formation, and ultimately to instruct well.

Phil is the only pilot that makes the list, but I can honestly say that I would not be the navigator that I am without him.  Phil sets an incredibly high bar and he expects everyone on his crew to meet that bar and raise it.  At the same time he has a knack for giving you the tools necessary to rise to the occasion.  Phil was my pilot at the Advanced Mountain Airlift Tactics School which was some of the most fun I have ever had flying.  That is a whole different level of instructing when you have the ability to improve the other crew positions around you.

As I said before, all of these instructors, and many more, instilled in me a confidence that has made it possible for me to succeed in my career.  They each had their own unique way of approaching essentially the same material to provide me with the best possible bag of tricks to carry throughout the rest of my career.

I have no idea what my students thought of flying with me, but I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity that I had to instruct them.  It is fulfilling in ways that I never understood before having this opportunity.  My hope is that I can leave them with the confidence they need to succeed in the same way that others did for me.

December 20, 2015 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

There is No Black and White in an Aircraft Emergency

For better or worse, mostly worse, we live in a world today where many people take every snippet of news to extremes.  Much of this is driven by the 24 hour news cycle, and the obsessive need of every media outlet to be the first to break any news that might be even remotely relevant without checking for confirmation, or even the facts.  Sensationalism is the name of the game in the media these days, and it is causing many problems that really should not be issues at all.

There may be no sector of the world where this is more true than aviation.  Some of this comes from the relative ignorance of the public, the potential for major tragedies in flight, and the complex nature of what we do.  Unfortunately, many media outlets don’t even take the time to find real experts to support their stories, because, let’s be honest, the truth wouldn’t sell nearly as well as the sensationalism they opt to offer.  Instead they prefer to scare the public into thinking a situation is worse than it actually is.  That is exactly what happened with two recent emergencies that garnered a fair amount of attention.

The first was the engine fire of British Airways Flight 2276 in Las Vegas.  In short, there was an engine fire on the ground that caused the crew to abort their departure, and evacuate the aircraft.  They did a beautiful job of getting everyone to safety, and the aircraft was taken care of about as well as could be expected.

In this instance much of the extremism came from Twitter and other social media outlets where people completely shredded passengers who had taken their bags with them while evacuating.  While I agree that it was not the smartest move by these passengers, they certainly do not deserve much of the vitriol that has been thrown at them from the masses.  Rather than explaining further I would direct you to a piece written on the Airline Reporter website that does a far better job of conveying my feelings than I probably could.  Again, taking your bag in an evacuation is generally not the best idea, but there are certainly scenarios I could see that taking your bag could be justified, and you never know how you will respond in an emergency.

The second emergency that took place recently was the in-flight death of an American Airlines pilot.  While this is a terribly sad situation, the plane and the rest of the people on board were in no real danger just because one of the pilots was incapacitated.  For some reason the media is making a huge deal about the “co-pilot” having to land the plane by himself.  This is where ignorance and aviation colloquialisms come into play.  Again, I have been beaten to the punch by a much more qualified expert than myself so I would direct you to the writings of Cap’n Eric Auxier who very clearly and simply explains how the media has screwed up the reporting on this story.

Now I didn’t write this post just to direct you to other writers and their opinions, I have a point of my own to make.

As I alluded to in the title, there is no such thing as black and white in an emergency, nor do any of us know how we will respond in an actual emergency.  Because every emergency is incredibly unique there are always variables that will tweak the response of those involved.  The interesting thing about many of the extreme responses to this story is that not a single person I have seen respond has ever been in an actual emergency themselves.  They are surely out there, but I have not come across them.

In the military, as well as with the airlines, there are very clearly delineated emergency procedures and how to respond to them.  We refer to the first few steps of some of these emergency procedures as boldface in the military because they are written in bold and all capitals in our regulations.  All of these steps must be memorized because they are so important that there is no time to go looking through books for the procedure that you are supposed to follow.  Even with that being said, there are still situations where the best decision is to hold off on the boldface steps to return the plane, and its crew, safely home.

During my time in the C-130 I have been on board a handful of times when we had to shut down an engine, or perform some other emergency procedure.  Admittedly, shutting down one engine when you have three other good ones is not nearly as stressful as shutting down one of only two engines, but it is an uncomfortable situation nonetheless.  While each of these emergencies called for the same procedure to shut down an engine, not one of them was carried out in exactly the same way.

There is no black and white in an emergency, there is only an opportunity for a well-trained crew to make educated decisions that will ultimately lead to a safe outcome.  The safety record of the vast majority of aviation is a credit to the crews that have been well-prepared and have prevented many of these potential emergencies, and when they do happen, they have been mostly well handled saving many people a lot of heartache.  It is easy for armchair quarterbacks to question the decisions from the ground in the safety of their homes sitting behind their computer, but until you have been in an emergency you really have little room to talk.

Emergencies exist in every part of life in one way or another.  No matter how hard you try to prevent them they will eventually happen because that is just part of living.  We can mitigate them, and we can prepare like crazy so that we can respond appropriately when they do happen, but no matter how well we prepare we can never know how we will respond until an actual emergency is placed before us.

It is also important to keep faith in the pilots that safely transport us all over the world everyday.  If you don’t understand the terms we use in aviation and you are worried about what you hear on the news, ask someone who actually works in aviation and they can explain it better than the media.

The term co-pilot is merely in reference to the person sitting in the right seat of the flight deck.  It is incredibly common for us to fly with the most experienced pilot in the right seat, so that the less experienced pilot can gain experience in the left seat.  The reality is that no matter who is sitting in which seat, they are both qualified pilots that are perfectly capable of getting the plane safely to its destination.

So the next time the media or social media try to tell you that an emergency situation was handled wrong, or that someone in particular is at fault, take the time to do a little extra research and gather some more information.  The real information is out there if you will only take the time to find it.  No matter what you do find, never forget that no emergency situation is ever totally black and white.

October 13, 2015 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Lessons Learned: If You Don’t Use It You Lose It

I had an incredibly humbling experience last week that I feel is important to share as an aviator where it is vital that we share our experiences that others may learn.  I really need to get back to writing these posts because I have seen great value in sharing my experiences, or if nothing else just in writing them out for my own analysis and benefit.

First let me set the stage for what happened.

In flying the C-130 we have essentially two types of missions that we perform, airland flying and tactical flying.  Airland would be something similar to flying on an airline where we fly longer legs into various different airports transporting personnel and cargo.  Tactical flying is what makes us more unique; flying at low altitudes, in formation, and performing airdrops.  As you might imagine tactical flying is more challenging and requires more work from everyone on the crew before, and during, the flight.

Before last week I had not been on a tactical mission in about three months, and had not personally been in the seat for one in more like five months (I had been at instructor school for two months where I was watching students rather than actually performing tasks).  I had only had one airland flight during that time which had actually gone really well so I felt pretty confident going into my flight last week.  I had also briefed for two other tactical flights the week before so I was starting to get some idea of what to expect on my flight, or at least I thought I was.

A couple of other variables that I also feel are important to mention are that this was my first flight in the local area in Japan, my instructor had not flown in about a month, the copilot is also new to the local area having had only a handful of flights, the pilot had just been returned to flying status after a significant break, and she was getting a no-notice checkride from none other than our commander.  A no-notice is jut what it sounds like; you show up to fly and when you sign in you find out that you will be getting evaluated on the flight.  It tends to add a certain level of stress.

On top of all of this we had a pretty complex mission profile because we were trying to drop at two different drop zones with a potential to fly up to six different routes, none of which I had ever flown.  The mission commander would also not be part of the majority of the tactical portion of the mission due to some weird scheduling that required him to support a checkride.  There were actually a total of 4 checkrides being performed on the three planes in the formation.

Now that you have endured the setup, let me explain what happened.

In short, I had the worst flight I have ever had.  I was slow in my callouts.  I completely forgot certain procedures.  If I’m being totally honest there were multiple times I kind of zoned out and was overwhelmed.  Just to be very clear, we were never in an unsafe position, and no rules were broken.  I simply was a useless crew member for much of the flight.  I have known the pilot for a few years now and she said it wasn’t that bad so I am sure a lot of my disappointment and frustration came from my own personal standards of performance.

It can be incredibly difficult to try to do a task that you have done hundreds of times, but not remember how to do it, or at least not do it as well as you know you are capable of performing.  My last flights had been at instructor school where I was critiquing role-playing instructors and had been deemed worthy to not only perform these tasks, but to INSTRUCT them, and now I couldn’t even do it myself. It was probably the worst I have ever felt after a flight.

It is amazing how quickly you lose abilities when you do not use them.  I could go through the procedures in my head just fine but in the plane I struggled to keep up.  It seriously made me question my abilities and whether or not I even enjoyed what I do anymore.  If this was the end of the story I would apologize for being so depressing, but fortunately there is a good ending.

I flew again last night and it was dramatically better.  Interestingly, I had an instructor that has a reputation for being really tough, which intimidated me a little bit, but maybe that was exactly the challenge that I needed.  I was engaged for the entire flight and knew exactly what was happening the entire time.  My situational awareness was so much greater in providing useful inputs to the crew and what was going on during the mission as a whole.

I was still a little slow with some things, but everything happened in time to get the mission done.  I was once again a useful crew member and it reminded me of exactly why I love what I do.  I still have plenty to work on, as all aviators must continually work at honing our craft, but it was so refreshing to get closer to the level at which I was used to performing.

I don’t know that I can convey all of the lessons that I learned from this experience, but there are a few very clear lessons worth mentioning.

The first lesson is that you are bound to lose abilities that you don’t use.  We all have reasons that we are kept away from flying, or any other activity that we perform, and when that happens we will inevitably lose some of our ability to perform that task.  It is important to keep that in mind when we try to perform that task again so that we don’t overextend ourselves and end up in a dangerous situation.

In tandem with that understanding is not being intimidated to go back to something we love just because it has been a long time.  Maybe life has prevented you from flying for a long time so you are scared to get back up in the air, but there is no reason to be scared.  Book a refresher lesson or two with a good instructor and before you know it you will be on your way to rebuilding those good habit patterns and enjoying the wonder that is aviation.  I was amazed at how quickly it all started to come back to me last night as I built upon each task that I performed correctly.

Flying is just like many other activities in that it takes a lot of practice to become good at it, and in reality you never stop learning because literally every situation is unique.  Taking breaks is just part of life and in some instances can actually be good for recharging your batteries and helping you to remember how much you love something.  Just understand what your limits are and don’t be discouraged when it takes some time to get back into your groove.

As I have said many times before, don’t be afraid to ask for help either.  There may not be a better group of people than flyers when it comes to helping fellow flyers.  It is a passion that cannot be easily explained to others, but for those who have it no words are needed to understand each other.

October 6, 2015 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Giving Them Wings: The Basic Airborne Course at Fort Benning, GA

The C-130 is the chariot of choice for modern Airborne students.

The C-130 is the chariot of choice for modern Airborne students.

This article originally appeared on NYCAviation.com.

Dropping something out of an airplane is generally frowned upon for most people because you never know where that thing you dropped is going to land or whom it might hurt. However, in the C-130, dropping things out of our airplane is what makes us different from UPS or FedEX; that, and landing on dirt strips that are only 3000 feet long.

In the history of the US military, a number of significant drops really changed the face of the wars where they took place. As a member of the 50th Airlift Squadron, I am proud of the heritage that has been left to me by those who participated in those airdrops, including D-Day — probably the most famous airdrop of all.

The HBO series Band of Brothers (which if you haven’t seen, I highly recommend) made that airdrop known to my generation and really reinforced the dangerous nature of those types of missions. Another fascinating part of that series was the training and transforming of those men into paratroopers to prepare them to make that fateful jump.

In the decades since that jump, not a ton has changed in the training. Sure, the equipment has improved; though not exactly the same, it still follows the same basic pattern. That includes using three of the four 250-foot jump towers at Ft. Benning where the training continues to take place.

To read the full article and see more videos and images please visit NYCAviation.com.

April 6, 2015 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Advanced Mountain Airlift Tactics School

This picture sums up most of the flying that we did at AMATS.  Tilt the screen to line up the horizon and it will blow your mind.

This picture sums up most of the flying that we did at AMATS. Tilt the screen to line up the horizon and it will blow your mind.

I had the great opportunity to go out to Reno, Nevada for a mountain flying course that really opened my eyes to the challenges of flying in a mountain environment.  I felt like I had a little perspective having spent four months flying in the mountains of Afghanistan, but this course gave me a whole new perspective on what mountain flying can be like.

The Advanced Mountain Airlift Tactics School (AMATS) is put on by the 192nd Airlift Squadron which is part of the Nevada Air National Guard based out of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.  It is designed give C-130 operators an introduction to mountain flying, which has certain inherent dangers that are not present in less topographically diverse terrain.

The course is designed to have one day of academics and three days of flying, but weather (an incredibly important aspect of mountain flying) prevented us from getting the third day in.  From an academic standpoint, topics like weather, previous accidents, and proper mission planning were covered in-depth.  This information was then applied to the actual missions that we would be flying in the coming days.

This is the mountain we climbed over during our "zoom climb".  Imagine flying right for that mountain and then initiating the climb only a couple of miles before you get there.  You can see the low-point on the ridge we aimed for.

This is the mountain we climbed over during our “zoom climb”. Imagine flying right for that mountain and then initiating the climb only a couple of miles before you get there. You can see the low-point on the ridge we aimed for.

The first day of flying focused on flying through narrow canyons where one can get easily confused by which canyon you are flying as well as navigating through less defined terrain.  After a short transit to the training area, we executed a penetration descent (essentially pitching the nose over and descending at maximum rate) then leveled off for a relatively standard landing at an out base.  The first real part of the training is what’s called a zoom climb.  Essentially you fly straight for a mountain at a high-speed and then pitch up and climb about 2000-2500′ in a matter of 20 seconds or so.  Now that is nothing for a fighter, but to see a Herc climb like that, even for a short period of time is pretty awesome.

The next phase of the mission was very reliant on proper mission planning.  One of the challenges of flying in mountain valleys is that it is really easy to fly up the wrong valley and put yourself in a terrible bind.  Through proper mission planning you analyze the terrain to find key markers that will aid you in flying up the right valleys and avoiding dangerous terrain like box canyons that you may have no way of getting out of.  My sincerest apologies that I was without GoPro for this part of day one because it was incredible to experience.

Dropping in over the lake on our way to the second airdrop of the day.

Dropping in over the lake on our way to the second airdrop of the day.  Formation flying is so much fun.

After winding our way through the mountain valleys we exited by way of our first ridge crossing, though nothing compared to what came on day two.  After dropping our heavy equipment at the drop zone we switched positions with our wingman and they led us out on the second route which was much more wide open and presented a slightly different challenge.  When terrain is really wide open there are two potential challenges.  The first is the lack of ground references to verify your position throughout the route.  This often forces you to utilize your navigation system a little more to ensure you are hitting your turnpoints and getting to where you need to be.

The other challenge is that open, gradually climbing terrain can easily sneak up on you if you aren’t careful.  We generally fly our routes between 300-500 feet AGL and as we crossed these wide open areas it was interesting to see how often our AGL altitude would drop without us even noticing.  We never got too close to the ground, but seeing us creep towards the slowly climbing terrain was eye-opening.

It's not hard to get up for work in the morning when you get to look forward to flying this beauty.

It’s not hard to get up for work in the morning when you get to look forward to flying this beauty.

This route was also a great opportunity to witness a little hidden terrain.  What this means is that smaller hills can get hidden when they have taller terrain behind them.  There are more factors involved than just size, but the real danger here comes when you think you are farther away from terrain than you actually are.  In a worst case scenario this could lead you to not climb early enough with catastrophic results.  After passing the second area of hidden terrain we then climbed up a steep valley for our second ridge crossing of the day dropping down over a lake and into the drop zone for a standard CDS drop, and a recovery back to the airport.

While not an incredibly cool shot of the plane, look at those clouds behind it.  Weather in the mountains is unpredictable and excitingly dangerous.

While not an incredibly cool shot of the plane, look at those clouds behind it. Weather in the mountains is unpredictable and excitingly dangerous.

All of the videos on this post came from day two which was equally as impressive as day one.  I should add that the grandeur of these mountains towering well above 10,000 feet was jaw-dropping beauty for our crew that is used to flying in Arkansas where our highest terrain is only around 2000 feet.  If you ever get the opportunity to fly in the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains I strongly suggest it.

Day two was focused on high altitude drop zones and landing zones.  The first video above gives you a little glimpse of a formation takeoff and transiting to the training area.  There are two important reasons this was included.  The first is the weather.  Look at the clouds as we fly towards the training area.  The second reason is caused by the weather.  Flying through such tall mountains can create some seriously drafty wind conditions.  Add this to the fact that a huge storm was starting to blow in that would ultimately have 100 mph winds and drop four feet of snow and staying in position was serious work for the pilots.  If you feel like the video is a little bouncy or jostled that is why.  It can be a challenge to stay in position in calm conditions so add 30-40 knot winds and it is even more challenging.  I give all the credit in the world to my pilots who kept as where we needed to be.

The first part of this training involved a rapid descent through a gunsight valley into a high altitude drop zone followed by a rapid climb out the other side.  The real challenge of a high altitude drop zone is that it takes longer for your plane to slow down to drop speed.  On top of that we were descending into the drop zone which makes it almost impossible to slow down at all until you actually level off.  Once again, proper mission planning was necessary to ensure that our descent began on time, so that we would be leveled off in time, so that we could slow down in time, to drop our load on time.

It was really cool to see how well the numbers we had planned worked out allowing us to get our drop off on time.  It was equally awesome to see how well our climb out numbers worked on the other side of the drop taking us up and away from the rapidly rising terrain.  The views were absolutely stunning, and something that the guys in Reno take a little bit for granted.  At the top of this climb you can see us fly well above two good-sized lakes at about three minutes into the video.  Those lakes would make a more prevalent appearance later in the mission.  We then circled back around for another high-altitude drop without a hitch.

The most exciting part of the day came after the second climb out up and over the mountains.  To take us from our high altitude above the mountains down into the valleys for our next phase of training we would execute a ridge crossing.  Initially, this was probably the most uncomfortable I got during all of this training.  If you look closely in the video you can see the plane in front of us bank to the left way passed the ridge, and then we dropped over the top.  The pilot banked the plane up to almost 60 degrees and the nose dropped quickly below the horizon.  It honestly felt like we were headed right for the top of the ridge until we picked up speed and it carried us right past it.

It was exhilarating to see such a large plane drop out of the air so fast.  You can actually hear our instructor scream with excitement right as we cross the ridge.  Shortly after that you can also hear the really loud sound of rushing air.  That is the sound of the pressure release valve trying to keep up with the pressurization in the plane.  It would end up taking another minute before the system would catch up after we leveled off.

Once we got down to the valley floor we transited over to another ridge for a second ridge crossing into the valley where the landing zone was.  While not quite as exhilarating as the first crossing it was still pretty awesome.

The work at the landing zone provided many of the same challenges as the drop because the plane does not slow down as fast.  My apologies that I only got two of the landings, but the battery died.  The first landing in the video is at normal speed to give you an idea of what it looks like.  The second landing was at 2x speed which is honestly more what it feels like.  The added challenge of this landing zone is that there is rising terrain on three sides which means you have to slide in between the two ridges and then climb as quickly as possible after takeoff before turning for the next pattern.

Flying back to the airport provided maybe the best example of how powerful the weather can be in mountainous terrain.  We were flying at least a couple of thousand feet above the terrain but we still had a couple of sections of turbulence that caused us to lose at least 300 feet of altitude almost instantly.  Mountain wave turbulence is some of the most dangerous weather you can experience in a plane because it is incredibly strong and can extend up to 200 miles away from the mountains that caused it.  That means that you may not be expecting it.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from this trip is just how important it can be to get good weather forecasts, and to truly understand how it can affect your operations.  I think most of us are quick to understand the dangers of ice, thunderstorms, and the wind associated with it, but it is the clear air stuff that can really ruin your day.

As I mentioned before our third day got weathered out because of the aforementioned mountain wave turbulence which was really an incredible disappointment because we would have been executing air drops on the side of mountains and up narrow valleys.  Then we would have done dirt assault landings at high-altitude which would have been some awesome video, but what can you do?

The AMATS course was the most worthwhile training I have gotten in the C-130.  It was easy to see how everything they taught us could be applied in an operational environment.  Even for the training that we perform on a regular basis there were key aspects that were taught.  It really is a shame that this course is not more widely utilized because it will literally save the lives of the people who properly apply it into their missions.

I gained a whole new respect for people who regularly fly in the mountains and the challenges that it includes.  No matter how experienced you are the mountains can jump up and bite you, but taking advantage of training like this, either civilian or military, will go a long way to ensuring that you get to enjoy flying through the mountains and the wonder that they are.

March 16, 2015 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Lessons Learned: Planning and Executing an 8-Ship Formation

There was much anticipation for me before we took the runway.  Especially because lead had a maintenance issue.

There was much anticipation for me before we took the runway. Especially because lead had a maintenance issue.

It’s been awhile since I did one of these posts, and it certainly isn’t for a lack of learning, but quite the opposite actually.  I’ve actually been a little overwhelmed recently with how much I have learned but I finally have a minute to put some of those thoughts to paper, or keyboard I guess.

The biggest learning that I have done recently took place just after the new year and involved planning and executing an 8-ship formation flight for my squadron.  We ended up with only six planes in the formation because of some maintenance issues, but it was an awesome experience nonetheless.  The maintainers actually deserve a huge amount of credit for getting that many flying considering what they had to do to make it happen.

There is just something about having this much airpower on one runway that gets me excited.

There is just something about having this much airpower on one runway that gets me excited.

I found out about this mission about a month before it was scheduled to take place and got some preliminary planning done before we all left for Christmas.  To the surprise of no one that has served in the Air Force, when we came back from the break, the powers that be changed our plan completely which meant we had a week to put the new plan in place.  I say we because I received a ton of vital help from about a half dozen people who provided guidance and expertise for something that I had never done.  It never would have happened if it weren’t for their help.

That week of planning was probably the most learning I have done in my relatively short career and I am so grateful for it.  With that being said I can’t really describe those lessons I learned because I don’t know how without spending the week that I put into it, besides, it is the flight that is the interesting part for most of you.

Sometimes it takes a little time to get everyone in position...

Sometimes it takes a little time to get everyone in position…

Because we don’t fly with this many planes together very often anymore it took a little work for all of the pilots to get back into the groove of flying with so many planes.  It is not just a matter of putting six planes close to each other, as you have to deal with the turbulence created by the plans in front of you as well as the accordion effect that takes place when you put any large number of moving objects together.  The closer you are to the back of the formation, the more challenging it becomes.

As you can see from some of these pictures it can be really challenging to stay in position in these conditions.  I give all the credit in the world to the pilots, and mine in particular, because they were working hard to stay in formation and keep it tight.  Being in the number five aircraft we had a great view of the formation and it was awesome to watch the ordered chaos come together almost perfectly as we recovered over the airfield.

...But it's pretty sweet once everyone slides into place.

…But it’s pretty sweet once everyone slides into place.

For the second half of the flight we actually planned to split the formation in two with a rendezvous about forty minutes later to bring us back together for the second airdrop.  As the person who had spent 40+ hours planning this thing down to the minute, and reassuring everyone else that it would work, I can’t really explain how excited I was when we reached the rendezvous point and I was able to look out the pilot’s window and see four other C-130s trucking towards us.

My pilot banked the plane up to turn towards them pointing the plane right at the last aircraft in their formation.  Then about a minute later he banked it back up the other direction and we were back together as a complete formation.  With all of the work it took to get there, it was incredibly fulfilling to see it come together so smoothly.

As I said before, there were really way too many lessons that I learned in the planning stage to try and cram them into one post, and most of them would make no sense without being there to experience it.  But, there are still a handful of lessons that came from the flying that can be applied to lots of different types of flying.

It was a huge relief once the flight was over and everyone taxied safely back to parking.

It was a huge relief once the flight was over and everyone taxied safely back to parking.

First is having faith in the people you fly with.  Whether they are sitting in the seat next to you or five planes away in the back of the formation, there is an incredible amount of trust we put in people we fly with.  In the 600+ hours I have in the C-130 I have never once been at the controls, though I do get to steer the plane through the autopilot sometimes, which means that every time I step onto the flight deck I am literally placing my life in the hands of the two pilots at the controls.  On this particular flight I could not have asked for a better pilot.

Second is the saying, “if you don’t use it you lose it”.  As I mentioned previously, I regularly fly with some incredible pilots.  They have flown me into different countries, through mountain valleys, and into dirt landing zones, but even the best pilot loses a little bit when they don’t do something often.  This was apparent during the first part of the flight, but it was equally important to me to see how quickly their proficiency of flying in a larger formation came back.  So for all of you pilots out there make sure that you are challenging yourself and forcing yourself to do things you don’t do often so that you can remain proficient.

For those of you thinking that formation flying is just for military planes, you couldn’t be more wrong.  It takes a matter of seconds to find videos of civilian formation flights on YouTube.  There is even a group of Bonanzas that fly in formation to EAA Airventure at OshKosh together.  If you are looking for something that is incredibly fun, and challenging, then I highly recommend a formation flight.  Make sure that you put in the proper planning though because it is not something to be taken lightly.

To take a look at more of the pictures from the fun we had head over to my friend’s Flickr page.

February 18, 2015 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Lessons Learned: Surviving a Murder Board

The problem with having essentially a two-week break from work as a flyer is that you really don’t get to fly either.  I was fortunate enough to get out with my friend in his Piper Cub on Christmas, which was amazing, but mostly just time around the house, and some homework otherwise.

I did have something to look forward to coming back to work this week, but it was a bit of a bitter-sweet thing.  The exciting part of this week is that I get to be part of an 8-ship formation soon.  In years past this would have been a relatively common occurrence, but these days almost all of our flights are only 2-ships, so to get out on an 8-ship is really exciting.

The downside is that I am one of the two main planners so there is a lot of work that goes into it.  We got a great start two weeks ago and had a bunch of stuff prepared only to find out that the powers that be didn’t like our plan, so we changed it to a more vanilla plan.  However, there really is no such thing as a vanilla plan when you are flying with four times as many planes as you usually do.

No worries though as I got a good base of a plan last week with a whole week to put it all together, or so I thought.  I spent most of the last day or so putting the plan together and starting to prepare products and a brief to explain what we were doing.  Then this afternoon we invited a handful of very experienced pilots and navigators that will be flying with us to take part in what we call a “murder board”.  The point of a murder board is to get other people who may not have been involved in the planning process to look at your plan and find anything that may be wrong or just things that need to be reconsidered.

The name and the description make it sound like an incredibly painful process, and it can be if you are stubborn or prideful, but in reality it is an awesome chance to get an outside perspective.  Especially for someone as inexperienced as me, it is an opportunity to learn from the people who have been there and done that.  Though it can lead to massive amounts of work, or in other words what I will be doing until we actually fly.

Please don’t mistake this for a complaint, as I do genuinely appreciate the feedback.  It is something that can be valuable in many different arenas, and even in civilian flying.  While the vast majority of civilian flying is likely not as complex as an 8-ship military formation, part of the fun of any flying is trying new things.  But, trying new things can also be a challenge if the plan is not thought through well enough.

Most of these poor plans can be traced back to a few common phrases, “Watch this!”, “I bet you can’t do…”, and the most dangerous “Hold my beer.”  There is nothing wrong with trying new things and challenging yourself, but it should be done in the right way.  If you want to get into aerobatics, take a class.  If you want to fly across the country, plan it out thoroughly like Bill Harrelson’s trip around the world.  If you want to land on small landing strips practice where you have extra room, and then when you are ready go for it.

One of the best things you can do is to get feedback from others with more experience.  Anything from building a plane to getting a new rating can be done better with help from those who are more experienced than you.  They can help you see things you never considered, and provide insight when you come across a problem where you see no answer.

One of the great things about military flying is that you can’t just rest on your laurels because they expect you to learn new things and progress through higher ratings and certifications.  It can be challenging at times, but as I said, it is important to find new challenges in all aspects of your flying.

So the real lesson to be learned here is to be open to feedback from other people.  If they are just being a jerk then nod and smile and then move on.  However, the vast majority of my experiences have been that they are just trying to help you get better.  That is one of the awesome things about people in aviation, for the most part they just want to help.  So don’t be afraid to not only accept feedback, but actively pursue it, because that is the only way to reach your full potential as a flyer.

January 6, 2015 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Lessons Learned: Flying for Others Can be Better than Flying for Yourself

Flying is an interesting hobby as it is generally one that is limited in how many people you can include, but at the same time is an incredibly tight-knit, and large, community.

Unless you have the means to own a private jet or even a large twin, you are really limited to only about 2-3 other people coming along in your plane, if that.  However, fly-ins can bring together dozens, or even hundreds, of people who are passionate about flying.  Look at events like AirVenture in OshKosh where tens of thousands gather every year and it is clear that aviation is really a giant family.

Given the time of year, there have been a number of great articles talking about organizations that utilize planes to do good for others.  Ron Rapp wrote a great piece about avgeeks who are “the best” because of the charitable work that they perform using their aircraft.  Cap’n Aux also gave us a great look at individuals who opened their hearts to support others who may have personal struggles through the wonder that is aviation.

Both of these stories are great examples of the huge hearts that aviators have, and their amazing willingness to help other people.  It made me wish that I was in a better position to help in the ways that these great men have.  But the more I thought about it the more I realized that I have done at least a little good.

Just last weekend I spent about 15 hours flying during which I got essentially no training, but facilitated the training of 18 aeromedical personnel.  I have performed three such trips in the last year including one which included returning 7 wounded military members to their home states.

This week I am at Ft. Benning, GA supporting the Basic Airborne Course (look for more on this next week) which will provide the training for about 400 soldiers to get their jump wings.  This is the third time I have done that this year.

I don’t say all of this to toot my own horn, but to point out that we often overlook the good that we are doing because we consider it to be insignificant.  All I did last weekend was get the plane where we needed to go, but that allowed for training that could not have been received on the ground.

I was also the beneficiary of a generous pilot this weekend when my friend took me up in his Piper Cub for a little fun VFR flying.  It proved to be a short trip because of high winds, but it was some of the most fun flying I have ever done, and it further deepened my commitment to getting my PPL during the first of next year so that I can help others to enjoy the liberating feeling of small aircraft VFR flying.

It was a small thing to my friend, but it was a big deal to me.  Each of us avgeeks has the ability to do these great things, and I am sure most of us do them without even realizing it.

Much has been written about aviators asking others to go with them and have some fun flying, but I would like to turn the tables just a little.  I would strongly encourage anyone that is longing to get up and fly to ask any pilot you know to take you up the next time they go.  If you don’t know a pilot then head down to your local FBO and hang around for a little while.  You will inevitably make a few new friends and get that ride you have been longing for.

As I mentioned before, we aviators are really just one big family that is anxious to help our fellow aviators in any way we can.  Most pilots would love a little company when they go flying if you will only ask.  Don’t be afraid to ask because as most flyers will tell you, the stories are so much more fun when they are stories that you have shared with someone else.

November 30, 2014 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.