After the Heart Attack – The Healing Power of Athletic Passions

DSC06084-B2There is nothing quite like a heart attack and triple bypass surgery to get your attention.

Even if you’ve been good, don’t smoke, don’t eat to excess, and get a little exercise, it may not be enough to keep a heart attack from interrupting your life style, and maybe even your life.

Post-surgical recovery can be slow and painful, but if you have an avocational passion, that passion can be motivational during the recovery period after a heart attack. There is something about the burning desire to return to diving, flying, or golfing to force you out of the house to tone your muscles and get the blood flowing again.

My return to the path of my passions, diving and flying, began with diet and exercise. My loving spouse suggested a diet of twigs and leaves, so it seemed. I can best compare it to the diet that those seeking to aspire to a perpetual state of Buddha-hood, use to prepare themselves for their spiritual end-stage: it’s a state that looks a lot like self-mummification. Apparently those fellows end up either very spiritual or very dead, but I’m not really sure how one can tell the difference.

The exercise routine began slowly and carefully: walking slowly down the street carrying a red heart-shaped pillow (made by little lady volunteers in the local area just for us heart surgery patients). The idea, apparently, is that if you felt that at any point during your slow walk your heart was threatening to extract itself from your freshly opened chest, or to extrude itself like an amoeba between the stainless steel sutures holding the two halves of your rib cage together, that pillow would save you. You simply press it with all the strength your weakened body has to offer against the failing portion of your violated chest, and that pressure would keep your heart, somehow, magically, in its proper anatomical location.

I am skeptical about that method of medical intervention, but fortunately I never had occasion to use it for its avowed purpose.

Eventually I felt confident enough to ditch the pillow and pick up the pace of my walks. In fact, I soon found I could run again, in short spurts. It was those short runs that scared the daylight out of my wife, but brought me an immense amount of pleasure.  It meant that I might be able to regain my flying and diving qualifications.

Three months later I was in the high Arctic with good exercise capability, and most importantly the ability to sprint, just in case the local polar bears became too aggressive on my nighttime walks back from the only Ny-Alesund pub.

Stress test, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

After that teaching adventure, I prepared myself for the grinder that the FAA was about to put me through: a stress test. Not just any stress test mind you, but a nuclear stress test where you get on a treadmill and let nurses punish your body for a seeming eternity. Now, these nurses are as kindly as can be, but they might well be the last people you see on this Earth since there is a small risk of inducing yet another heart attack during the stress test. Every few minutes the slope and speed of the treadmill is increased, and when you think you can barely survive for another minute, they inject the radioisotope (technetium 99m).

With luck, you would have guessed correctly and you are able to push yourself for another long 60-seconds. I’m not sure exactly what would happen if you guess incorrectly, but I’m sure it’s not a good thing.

And then they give you a chance to lie down, perfectly still, while a moving radioisotope scanner searches your body for gamma rays, indicating where your isotope-laden blood is flowing. With luck, the black hole that indicates dead portions of the heart will be small enough to be ignored by certifying medical authorities. (An interesting side effect of the nuclear stress test is that you are radioactive for a while, which in my case caused a fair amount of excitement at large airports. But that’s another story.)

The reward for all the time and effort spent on the fabled road to recovery, is when you receive, in my case at least, the piece of paper from the FAA certifying that you are cleared to once again fly airplanes and carry passengers. With that paper, and having endured the test of a life-time, I knew that I’d pass most any diving physical.

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Vortex Springs, 2010

Having been in a situation where nature dealt me a low blow and put my life at risk and, perhaps more importantly, deprived me of the activities that brought joy to my life, it was immensely satisfying to be able to once again cruise above the clouds on my own, or to blow bubbles with the fish, in their environment. Is there anything more precious that being able to do something joyful that had once been denied?

A goofy looking but very happy diver sharing a dive with his Granddaughter, July 2014.











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Without a doubt, the reason I was able to resume my passions was because I happened to do, as the physicians said, “all the right things” when I first suspected something unusual was happening in my chest. The symptoms were not incapacitating so I considered driving myself to the hospital. But after feeling not quite right while brushing my teeth, I lay down and called 911. The ambulance came, did an EKG/ECG, and called in the MI (myocardial infarction) based on the EKG. The Emergency room was waiting for me, and even though it was New Years’ eve, they immediately called in the cardiac catheterization team. When the incapacitating event did later occur I was already in cardiac ICU and the team was able to act within a minute to correct the worsening situation.

Had I dismissed the initial subtle symptoms and not gone to the hospital, I would not have survived the sudden onset secondary cardiac event.

The lesson is, when things seem “not quite right” with your body, do not hesitate. Call an ambulance immediately and let the medical professionals sort out what is happening. That will maximize your chances for a full and rapid recovery, and increase the odds of your maintaining your quality of life.

It will also make you appreciate that quality of life more than you had before. I guarantee it.

The Aesthetics of Flying in Clouds

When it comes to vocations and avocations, I know of none more aesthetically pleasing than flying and diving. I’m sure there are many others, but I simply don’t know them.

My vocation is diving, and flying is my avocation. I also know commercial pilots who dive in caves simply for the joy of diving. Those two activities, flying and diving, are fairly similar, as I’ve noted before.

There are experiences in flying and diving that make them more than enjoyable. They are actually breathtaking, when one takes the time to appreciate them.

For me, the breath taking part is flying into and out of clouds; what is called instrument flying. It’s called that because when you’re in clouds you can’t see the horizon, and you can’t trust bodily sensations, so you are entirely dependent upon your aircraft instruments to make sure you, your passengers, and the aircraft, do not come to harm.

Granted, there are times during an instrument flight when you see absolutely nothing outside the aircraft. Some have compared it to flying inside a milk bottle, which is in my opinion an apt analogy. If it happens to be smooth flight, then there is no sensation of flight at all. The electronic equipment counts down the miles, but as far as you can tell you are in aerial limbo, seemingly suspended in time and space, encroaching on the edges of the twilight zone. 

But when you eventually break out of those clouds, you instantaneously switch from sensory deprivation to sensory overload. The view can be spectacular. 


When I was an instrument student, long before GPS navigation, instrument flying was hard work, especially when training. It still is in many ways, but technology has made flight in the clouds more precise, and frankly easier over all than it used to be.

But in the clouds a pilot is still too busy “aviating, navigating, and communicating”, to catch more than a brief glance outside, to enjoy the ever shifting textures of white clouds, blue sky and a multitude of grays in between. Occasionally you spy greens and browns of the ground, seen fleetingly through breaks in the cloud cover.

It is a grand theater in the sky not visible from the ground. For that reason, it is special, and to be seen in that moment and that place by no one else in the world except you and your passengers.

The video below gives a sample of such variable flows of scenery, with visibility ranging from zero to miles. The entire flight looped around my home airport in Panama City, FL, as I was radar vectored along a large rectangle, eventually joining a course bringing the aircraft back to a straight-in approach for landing.

This particular flight was a currentcy flight, so the departure and approach to landing was repeated several times. The video, however, ends just after I set up the navigation devices for the next approach. (I suggest you watch the video full screen at the highest resolution possible – 1440p HD.)

The only way I can hope to describe the beauty of such a flight is through the music which accompanies it. The quietness, the excitement, is all there. And from one who has experienced all those emotions during the flight, I can attest to the relevance of that music.






GoPro, YouTube, and the Need for Speed

Have you ever watched a local sailboat race from the shore?

It’s not exactly an adrenaline-pumping spectator sport. On the boats of course there is plenty of excitement — shouting, sometimes cursing. But from shore all the on-boat drama is missing.

GoPro cameras have ushered in a new era of taking the viewer into the action. And based on the action that I commonly see on the Internet, that action is not of local sail boat races. It is instead full of speed and thrills. The penultimate example of the testosterone driven thrill seeking, in my opinion, is the dangerous sport of wingsuit flying, always perilously close to terrain.

The visual rush is not subtle. You are left with the impression that any second you’ll witness a fatal crash. You leave the video thinking that the flyer is one very brave, very skilled, and very lucky person. Or else you just think they’re CRAZY!

But honestly, I’d love to be that crazy— just once anyway.


When I watch such videos on YouTube I get the sense that I am a spectator at a blood sport event. There is beauty and grace which I admire, but ultimately I know there is risk to the participant, as evidenced occasionally by the literally rib-splitting, pink mist endings to some of those flights. We enter into the action, but comfortably in front of our TV or computer screens with no personal risk to ourselves.

Arguably we are really not so different from the crowds at the Gladiator games, or for a more modern though fictional example, the Hunger Games.

What I like about the new class of miniature, high-definition video cameras is that they allow us to video what we love doing and then share it with the world. That’s nice, but unless what you do is high speed, endearingly cute, or down-right funny, it may be difficult to attract viewers.

I’ve uploaded flying videos, including the high definition video below, but they are not exciting. Instead, they appeal, I think, to those who simply love flight: the visual sensations of landing, of entering clouds, or skimming cloud tops. That type of flight is the way the FAA expects pilots to fly — safely. Yet safe flight is also capable of generating visual sensations that secretly thrill even highly experienced pilots, and keep them in love with their profession.


On the other hand, the adrenalin-packed videos that high definition cameras provide can entice some pilots to fly unsafely, simply to titillate the cameraman and the viewer. I suspect the pilot in the following video got a high viewer count but I also suspect his wings are about to be clipped by the FAA.



I am very unlikely to engage in risky flying simply because it looks thrilling when posted on the Internet. I want to keep my license; it is a treasured privilege to be able to fly. But also because I’ve lived long enough to know it is quite a different thing to watch a Miss Universe pageant, and quite another to entertain a pageant contestant when she shows up unexpectedly at your door. The thrill may be more intense in the latter case, but the personal risk may be far greater; especially if your significant other meets her at the door.






Making Fuel

Buffalo Airways C-46 Commando.

While watching an “Ice Pilots” episode on the Weather Channel I heard a pilot of a Curtiss C-46 Commando talking to his inexperienced copilot during a flight. At one point he said they were “making fuel.”

I have enough common sense and experience as a pilot to know that could not be literally true. But I had no idea what the Ice Pilot’s comment  really meant until recently returning home during a non-stop flight from Dallas, Texas to the Florida Panhandle.

I had purposefully climbed to 11,000 feet to catch good tailwinds heading east. The winds were even stronger at higher altitudes, but if I’d climbed to the next allowed altitude, 13,000 feet, my passenger and I would have needed to wear an oxygen mask. And I’d left the oxygen system at home.

During flight planning before departure, it looked as if going high would give us enough of a tailwind that we would be able to make the trip without a time consuming fuel stop.

Modern aircraft often have fuel computers communicating with the aircraft GPS navigation system. Fuel computers track every ounce of fuel burned during taxi and flight. The pilot programs the total fuel available and then the fuel computer checks with the GPS to see how many miles remain to the destination, and the ground speed. Every few seconds the pilot sees an update of the fuel burned, gallons remaining, predicted flight time available, the fuel required to reach the destination, and the bottom line, the predicted fuel reserve at the destination.

Typically, I want to land with no less than 10 usable gallons remaining, which is enough to remain aloft for an additional hour at the normal fuel consumption rate. If the weather is bad at the destination, then the required fuel reserve is considerably larger.

On the first phase of my flight to Dallas, once I had reached cruising altitude the fuel computer calculated that if the current ground speed and fuel burn were to continue to the end of the trip, I would have five gallons of fuel left at the destination. That is not enough for safe flight, so a refueling stop was looking inevitable. As the flight continued, the estimation of reserve fuel barely budged from its first estimate. In other words, nothing was changing, and the decision to refuel was firmly made.

East Texas from 11,000 ft. Click to enlarge.

On the return flight, however, flying relatively high where the prevailing westerlies were strong,  the computed reserves (RES) were changing. They were growing. As the flight progressed I watched the estimated fuel reserve rise slowly from 8 gallons to 9, then 10, and finally 11.4 gallons. By the time we landed we had 12 gallons of fuel remaining in the two fuel tanks.

It truly looked like we were making fuel.

We weren’t, of course. The reality of it was that the tailwind was increasing in our favor for the east-bound trip. But the fuel computer gave every impression that for every gallon of fuel we burned, we were getting a little bit back.

I finally understand what the Ice Pilot meant; I think. If I ever meet him, I’ll ask.