Planes vs. birds

Landing on the Harbor Visual Runway 29 Approach into KPWM can be a 95-second joy ride if the time of day and the time of year are just right. For us, that flight, it was.

I flew the crowded 50-seat regional jet in a descending arc, starting at Elizabeth City, Maine. We traveled north along the Maine coast past the airport, giving the passengers views of the cobalt blue Casco Bay and the mossy green Ram and Peaks Islands, before we banked left and headed south along the coast, over the narrow, inky blue Portland Harbor.

“Glorious,” crowed the captain.

“Birds,” was my reply. I pointed to a small flock of large, brown waterfowl taking wing from the run-up area of Runway 29 off my starboard side.

“They’ll be gone before you cross the fence,” he assured me.

Cleared to land, I banked right into a smooth intercept of the localizer needle. Gliding over the airport perimeter, I let the jet drift left of the runway center line.

“What are you doing? Center line!”

“Birds,” I replied, just as three big birds arrowed straight for us. I evaded two before crossing the numbers. I swung back toward center line. I heard a resounding “THUNK.”

[Read more…]

Managing anger in the cockpit

“Louisa County traffic, November four four two eight Quebec departing Runway Niner for left crosswind departure, Louisa County traffic.” I visually cleared final approach and the traffic pattern. Seeing all four quadrants empty, I took the runway and took off.

Upwind off KLKU looked fantastic. A riot of yellows, oranges and reds overwhelmed any remaining resistance from the faltering ranks of green leaves. It created a spectacular autumnal canopy beneath my fixed gear.

Somewhere on a distant radio call a guy might have announced a 10-mile, straight-in to downwind entry to the same runway I’d just departed, but I couldn’t swear to it. The fall colors had distracted me. I extended my upwind without any qualms. The town and airport of Louisa were new to me and I wanted to remember the experience.

I announced my crosswind turn and made it. That’s when I saw a Bonanza streaking toward me right to left, descending to my altitude. This time I did hear the pilot, yelling on CTAF at “that idiot coming my way.”

[Read more…]

Would you hesitate to declare an emergency?

The fact that all three of my passengers were throwing up simultaneously left me three options: Tough it out and press on to our destination; join them in their nauseous state; or declare an emergency and get the hell on the ground.

My right seat passenger was a Horizon Air first officer. She thought she was used to bumpy rides. I was flying her to her domicile. She was supposed to report for work there within four hours of our scheduled arrival time.

To top it off, it was only the 11th month of her 12-month probation period. Missing her show time could be reason enough to fire her. I wanted to press on…believe me. I wanted to impress her with my weather flying skills in hard IMC. I wanted to be her hero. But mostly I wanted her to walk my resumé in to her chief pilot the next time a hiring window opened.

Everything in me said, “continue.” Even my front seatmate pleaded for me to gut it out, so I hesitated.
[Read more…]

The Black Hole Departure disaster

A dark cloud has recently settled on the general aviation community from the fatal airplane crash of Babar and Haris Suleman. They were a father and son pilot team who were attempting to fly around the world. They had become popular through social media.

Followers of their journey wonder what happened that their Beechcraft could depart in ideal conditions — a 10,000-foot sea level runway at midnight — only to crash nose first into the inky black ocean seconds later? Speculation continues to light up many online forums, while the investigation remains ongoing. The leading theory is that they succumbed to the elusive and dreaded Black Hole Departure.

[Read more…]

Presence of mind

The first time I took the aircraft controls away from a copilot, it was from a Marine Corps aircraft commander. He’d flown in Iraq. He’d balanced his Sikorsky CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopter — a twin-rotored behemoth — off the edge of a San Francisco high-rise while troops “on exercises” stormed out the back.

Me? I’d gotten my private helicopter license less than three weeks earlier in a Robinson R-22, a runt of an aircraft — the same helicopter we were now flying along the LA coast.

[Read more…]

Fatigue: The pilot’s common cold

Returning from a short tropical vacation, I barely napped on the transatlantic red-eye. It was the night before my third airplane instructional flight. During the ground lesson, I thought I was hiding my jetlag pretty well from my instructor. It turns out he saw through my ruse and blindsided me with one of his own.

[Read more…]

Pilot bias

The first time I rode in a helicopter it was to chase down Donald Trump’s yacht. It would be another six years before I would get my own pilot’s license, so the pilot told me to keep my feet away from the rudder pedals and not to move them — no matter what.

I opened my mouth to assure him I wasn’t going to mess up this opportunity, but he cut me off. “Don’t take it personally. It’s my standard practice to tell anyone sitting in the seat next to me the same thing. Even the cameraman who flies with me all the time gets the same message. Every day.”

[Read more…]

Expectations and fixation

My first flight lesson was out of Virginia’s Leesburg Executive Airport (KJYO), inside the Dulles Class B airspace. We took off and performed some air work in the practice area. Then we headed back toward the airport. My instructor told me to find the airport so he could show me how to do a pattern entry. I looked and looked but I could not spot little Leesburg Airport. Finally I told him, “I can’t find the airport. It’s too small!”

My instructor was a recent émigré from New Delhi, India. In his most patient Indian-accented English he replied, “It is not the fault of the airport that you cannot see it. It is exactly the size it needs to be.”

[Read more…]