Middle aged guys are a sucker for a pretty face, as this odiferous saga proves.
I was headed overseas from New York to Paris, which is always a relatively painful transcontinental experience back in the Economy section. But my trouble started even before we left the gate.
I had selected an aisle seat near the rear of the aircraft. That is not my favorite choice, but it was all that was available on the flight.
There was a frankly gorgeous young woman sitting against the window, on my right. She had the slight scent of perfume about her. She looked up when I sat down, but didn’t speak. We exchanged smiles, and then settled in with no more immediate conversation.
At this point, the Boeing 757 seating chart becomes relevant. I, illustrated as a red square, was seated in 35J. The young lady sitting next to me (illustrated by pink) was in 35K. As the plane took off, I settled in for a tiring but otherwise uneventful flight.
Once we reached an altitude where seatbelts could be undone, the girl next to me explained that her boyfriend was a couple of rows back (marked by a blue square), and asked if I could change seats with him. Well, I am not one to impede young love, so I graciously agreed to move further back, from seat 35J to 37J. It was only two rows, I reasoned.
As I strapped in, feeling proud of myself for doing a good deed, I found myself seated next to a young Caucasian man, probably in his mid-twenties. We exchanged cordial glances. Although he seemed shyer than usual, to each his own, I thought. Perhaps he didn’t speak English.
Within seconds of settling in, I detected a foul odor coming from the shy man in 37K (indicated by black) that, unlike the passing of gas, seemed to linger. I made sure the overhead vents were on full blast, but still the odor was inescapable. It was so pungent that I briefly thought it smelled like putrefaction, as if the man had a gangrenous leg hidden underneath his trousers. But the man did not appear to be in pain, and he clearly was not dead, yet, so my thinking, and revulsion, began to gravitate towards a horrific case of unchecked body odor. As one of my professors used to say, the smell was bad enough to gag a maggot.
I then realized I had been bamboozled by the cute girl in 35K who had taken advantage of this luckless middle-aged man. Once her boyfriend was seated where I had been just a few minutes before, I saw the two of them glancing back at me, smiling. Yes, that couple in love had pulled off a coup on a gentleman, and this gentleman was now stuck flying through the night immersed in a suffocating stench that defied description.
There was another young lady, also lovely but lonely, sitting across the aisle from me. She kept looking longingly up the aisle, as if someone she knew was sitting there. Meanwhile, I was contemplating means of escaping the fetid odor overwhelming me. I considered shredding a paper towel from the lavatory, soaking it in airplane whiskey and thrusting those alcohol soaked tatters up my nose.
Now, I’ll admit I’m not a fan of whiskey. However, if it would somehow disguise the potentially lethal odor I was inhaling with each breath, it was an increasingly viable option. I had already ruled out the other alternatives, including accidentally throwing him out the passenger door. I’d heard those doors can’t be opened at altitude.
And then like a voice from heaven, the lovely girl across the aisle, in seat 37G, said the following: “Excuse me. My boyfriend is seated up there”, pointing to seat 34J. “Would you mind exchanging seats with him so we can sit close to each other?”
I could be mistaken, but I thought I heard a chorus of angels singing “Halleluiahs”.
Of course I could not deny young love. So, within seconds I was sitting in seat 34J, one row forward from where I had started this flight, and breathing far less foul air.
A couple of hours later I headed to the back of the plane to find the lavatories. As I passed the young man who was seated in seat 37J, as his girl friend had requested, he gave me a mean look. But to be honest, as I passed him I simply thought, “All’s fair in love and war.”
Blood pressure is not the only silent medical killer. Hypoxia is also, and unlike chronically elevated blood pressure, it cripples within minutes, or seconds.
Hypoxia, a condition defined by lower than normal inspired oxygen levels, has killed divers during rebreather malfunctions, and it has killed pilots and passengers, as in the 1999 case of loss of cabin pressure in a Lear Jet that killed professional golfer Payne Stewart and his entourage and aircrew. Based on Air Traffic Control transcripts, that fatal decompression occurred somewhere between an altitude of 23,000 feet and 36,500 ft.
In most aircraft hypoxia incidents, onset is rapid, and no publically releasable record is left behind. The following recording is an exception, an audio recording of an hypoxia emergency during a Kalitta Air cargo flight.
Due to the seriousness of hypoxia in flight, military aircrew have to take recurrent hypoxia recognition training, often in a hypobaric (low pressure) chamber.
As the following video shows, hypoxia has the potential for quickly disabling you in the case of an airliner cabin depressurization.
Aircrew who must repeatedly take hypoxia recognition training are aware that such training comes with some element of risk. Rapid exposure to high altitude can produce painful and potentially dangerous decompression sickness (DCS) due to the formation of bubbles within the body’s blood vessels.
In a seminal Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) report published in 1991, LCDR Bruce Slobodnik, LCDR Marie Wallick and LCDR Jim Chimiak, M.D. noted that the incidence of decompression sickness in altitude chamber runs from 1986 through 1989 was 0.16%, including both aviation physiology trainees and medical attendants at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute. Navy-wide the DCS incidence “for all students participating in aviation physiology training for 1988 was 0.15%”. If you were one of the 1 and a half students out of a thousand being treated for painful decompression sickness, you would treasure a way to receive the same hypoxia recognition training without risk of DCS.
With that in mind, and being aware of some preliminary studies (1-3), NEDU researchers performed a double blind study on twelve naïve subjects. A double-blind experimental design, where neither subject nor investigator knows which gas mixture is being provided for the test, is important in medical research to minimize investigator and subject bias. Slobodnik was a designated Naval Aerospace Physiologist, Wallick was a Navy Research Psychologist, and Chimiak was a Research Medical Officer. (Chimiak is currently the Medical Director at Divers Alert Network.)
Three hypoxic gas mixtures were tested (6.2% O2, 7.0% and 7.85% O2) for a planned total of 36 exposures. (Only 35 were completed due to non-test related problems in one subject.) Not surprisingly, average subject performance in a muscle-eye coordination test (two-dimensional compensatory tracking test) declined at the lower oxygen concentrations. [At the time of the testing (1990), the tracking test was a candidate for the Unified Triservice Cognitive Performance Assessment Battery (UTC-PAB)].
As a result of this 1990-1991 testing (4), NEDU proved a way of repeatedly inducing hypoxia without a vacuum chamber, and without the risk of DCS.
The Navy Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory built on that foundational research to build a device that safely produces hypoxia recognition training for aircrew. That device, a Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device is shown in this Navy photo.
Although NEDU is best known for its pioneering work in deep sea and combat diving, it continues to provide support for the Air Force, Army and Marines in both altitude studies of life-saving equipment, and aircrew life support systems. Remarkably, the deepest diving complex in the world, certified for human occupancy, also has one of the highest altitude capabilities. It was certified to an altitude of 150,000 feet, and gets tested on occasion to altitudes near 100,000 feet. At 100,000 feet, there is only 1% of the oxygen available at sea level. Exposure to that altitude without a pressure suit and helmet would lead to almost instantaneous unconsciousness.
Herron DM. Hypobaric training of flight personnel without compromising quality of life. AGARD Conference Proceedings No. 396, p. 47-1-47-7.
Collins WE, Mertens HW. Age, alcohol, and simulated altitude: effects on performance and Breathalyzer scores. Aviat. Space Environ Med, 1988; 59:1026-33.
Baumgardner FW, Ernsting J, Holden R, Storm WF. Responses to hypoxia imposed by two methods. Preprints of the 1980 Annual Scientific Meeting of the Aerospace Medical Association, Anaheim, CA, p: 123.
Nature does not always provide good options. When faced with weather-related adversity, making the right decision can be as much a matter of luck as wisdom.
Homerville, Georgia is the home of some first-rate southern barbeque and home of one of the best genealogical libraries in the Southeast, the Huxford Geneological library. In June of 1975 I made an unintended stop at the Homerville Airport after flying my 1962 Cessna 150 from Thomasville, Georgia to Waycross, Georgia. My wife and Mother-In-Law were in Waycross, visiting, and on a Friday afternoon I took off in my 2-seater aircraft to meet my wife’s family 92 miles away.
As I approached Waycross a thunderstorm was directly on top of the field. The Waycross Fixed Base Operator confirmed they were being clobbered, so I made a 180 degree turn and flew 26 miles back to the Homerville airport that I had passed on the way in.
When I landed I found I was the only aircraft, and only human, on the field. But regrettably, there were no tie-downs, ropes or chains that I could use to secure the little Cessna while I found a phone to call my wife and tell her about the change in plans. The weather was good, and it should take only a few minutes to bother one of the nearby neighbors for a phone call. What could go wrong?
After I explained to my family where I was, I thanked the friendly lady who let me use her phone, and headed back to my aircraft. But as I approached the plane, the view at the other end of the runway was turning ugly. Another thunderstorm was headed straight for the field. And it was close, and mean-looking.
I climbed into the cockpit, started the engine, and sat there assessing what I was seeing out the windscreen. And thinking about options.
What I wanted to do was take-off and head for Waycross. I was not at all prepared to abandon my airplane and watch it be destroyed by the approaching storm. As I considered the fact that I would be taking off towards a thunderstorm, I thought of riding out the gusts on the ground, using the engine power and rudder to keep the plane pointed into the wind. But as I throttled the engine and rudder back and forth, reacting to the increasing gusts, I realized the 1000 pound plane would inevitably be picked up, with me in it, and dashed to the ground. It would not be a pretty sight, especially if it was lifted to a significant height by updrafts before being dropped.
The wind ahead of the thunderstorm rain shaft was picking up, gusting, and as I weighed the different options, the storm kept getting closer, closing my window of opportunity. As they say, the clock was ticking.
Finally, I decided I’d rather be airborne, in some semblance of control, than being airborne out of control. The storm was not yet on the field, but I knew I had scant seconds before the cloudy violence would make an escape impossible. I pressed hard on the brakes, dropped my flaps one notch, pushed the throttle full in, and when the engine was roaring as loudly as a 100 horse power engine can roar, I let go of the brakes and started my takeoff roll.
Thanks to the advantage of straight-down-the-runway storm winds, I lifted off very quickly. I stomped a rudder pedal and dipped a wing to turn as fast as I could away from the storm, passing over the roofs of nearby houses much closer than the residents were used to, I’m sure. But the plane was fully in control and headed quickly towards safety.
Although the storm winds were actually helping to push me away, I felt an occasional shudder from the back of the plane. I imagined the storm shaking me in its jowls, plucking at my wings with its sharp talons, as if angry that I had escaped its clutches.
I made it safely to Waycross, but my aircraft’s escape was short-lived.
If there were such a thing as a Storm Monster, I would think that it was malevolent, because exactly two weeks after that incident another thunderstorm hit the field in Waycross, where the plane was supposedly safely chained down. I was on the field as a vengeful storm snapped the steel chains holding down my plane’s tail, flipping the plane over on its back, crushing the tail. My little bird never had a chance.
I had risked my life in Homerville to avoid watching my beautiful bird be destroyed, only to see it destroyed in the same manner only a fortnight later.
We tell our children there are no monsters … but I’m not so sure.
“It was a gorgeous day to jump from a perfectly good airplane. I, Mickey McGurn, was good at it, and I got paid well to do it.
But one day I got careless.
It was 1927, and parachute jumping was a new thing on the barnstorming circuit. It made people catch their breath when I jumped out of airplanes. They just knew they were going to see me fall straight to my death.
I would gather the parachute in my arms, without packing it, bundle it into the cockpit, and go aloft for a jump.
One day a number of my barnstorming friends protested at the way I handled the parachute. But I told them to mind their own business.
“Forget it,” I said. “I built this thing myself and I know what it’ll do.”
Well, I might have been wrong about that, because one day the ‘chute didn’t work. It opened only about a quarter of the way and I fell to the ground with a terrific speed. Those folks who were waiting to see me die almost got more than they bargained for.
Folks told me I bounced at least 10 feet into the air, but I don’t remember anything after I hit the ground.
The doctors said I broke pretty much every bone in my body, but obviously I lived, sort of.
I’m now hobbling around on crutches. I’m deaf, nearly blind, and can’t taste my food, or enjoy any of the things I used to.
My bones have healed, sort of, but not the way they were when I was a cocky young fool who felt invincible.
I guess I should have listened to my friends. They realized I was courting disaster, but I was too proud, or arrogant, or just plain stupid to notice it.
But they were right.
I suppose that no matter what you do, whether it’s racing cars, jumping out of airplanes, or walking on the bottom of the ocean, your friends are usually better at telling when you’re getting careless than you are.
I guess it’s similar to the way a friend can usually tell when you’re drunk before you can.
The above is a fictional version of an actual accounting by one aviation daredevil named Mickey McGurn, given to a newspaper reporter for the Syracuse American. The short piece appeared in the Sunday edition under a section called the “World of Aviation”. The publication date was February 26, 1928. The writer was Gordon K. Hood, a feature writer who penned several aviation-themed chapters for the paper, a collection of mini-stories such as this one, collectively called “Sprouting Wings”. Mr. Hood was himself quite an accomplished early aviation pioneer, as recounted in a 1939 edition of the Syracuse Journal.
I have taken the time to paraphrase this story due to its applicability to many potentially hazardous endeavors. Safety risks are not always noticeable to those at greatest risk.
The actual article is found below. It, and a full page copy of the 1928 newspaper page, was provided to the present author by Mr. Douglas Barnard, presently from Waldorf, Maryland.
There 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.
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.
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?
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.
I was recently flying a private aircraft down the Florida Peninsula to Ft. Lauderdale to give a presentation on diving safety. As I continually checked the cockpit instruments, radios and navigation devices, it occurred to me that the redundancy that I insist upon in my aircraft could benefit divers as well.
In technical and saturation diving, making a free ascent to the surface is just as dangerous as making a free descent to the ground in an airplane, at night, in the clouds. In both aviation and diving, adequate redundancy in equipment and procedures just might make life-threatening emergencies a thing of the past.
As I took inventory of the redundancy in my simple single engine, retractable gear Piper, I found the following power plant redundancies: dual ignitions systems, including dual magnetos each feeding their own set of spark plug wires and redundant spark plugs (two per cylinder). There are two sources of air for the fuel-injected 200 hp engine.
There are two ways to lower the landing gear, and both alarms and automatic systems for minimizing the odds of pilot error — landing with wheels up instead of down. (I’ve already posted about how concerning that prospect can be.)
I also counted three independent sources of weather information, including lightning detection, and two powerful communication radios and one handheld backup radio. For navigation there is a compass and four electronic navigation devices: one instrument approach (in the clouds) approved panel mount GPS with separate panel-mounted indicator, an independent panel mounted approach certified navigation radio, plus two portable GPS with moving map displays and superimposed weather. Even the portable radio has the ability to perform simple navigation.
The primary aircraft control gyro, the artificial horizon or attitude indicator, also has a fully independent backup. One gyro operates off the engine-powered vacuum pump, and the second gyro horizon is electrically driven. Although by no means ideal, the portable GPS devices also provide attitude indicators based upon GPS signals. In a pinch in the clouds, it’s far better than nothing. Of course, even if all else fails, the plane can still be flown by primary instruments like rate of climb, altimeter, and compass.
There is only one sensitive altimeter, but two GPS devices also provide approximate altitude based on GPS satellite information.
But what about divers? How are we set for redundancy?
Starting with scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), gas supplies are like the fuel tanks in an aircraft. I typically dive with one gas bottle, but diving with two or more bottles is common, especially in technical diving. In a similar fashion, most small general aviation aircraft have at least two independent fuel tanks, one in each wing.
The scuba’s engine is the first stage regulator, the machine that converts high pressure air into lower pressure air. Most scuba operations depend on one of those “engines”, but in extreme diving, such as low temperature diving, redundant engines can be a life saver. While most divers carry dual second stage regulators attached to a single first stage, for better redundancy polar divers carry two independent first stages and second stages. Two first stage regulators can be placed on a single tank.
Even then, I’ve witnessed dual regulator failures under thick Antarctic ice. The only thing saving that very experienced diver was a nearby buddy diver with his own redundant system.
There is a lot to be gained by protecting the face in cold water by using a full face mask. But should the primary first or second stage regulator freeze or free flow, the diver would normally have to remove the full face mask to place the second regulator in his mouth.
Reportedly, sudden exposure of the face to cold water can cause abnormal heart rhythms, an exceedingly rare but potentially dangerous event in diving. If the backup or bail out regulator could be incorporated into the full face mask, that problem would be eliminated. The photo on the right shows one such implementation of that idea.
Rebreathers are a different matter. Most rebreather divers carry a bailout system in case their primary rebreather fails or floods. For most technical divers, that redundancy is an open circuit regulator and bailout bottle. However, there are options for the bail-out to be an independent, and perhaps small rebreather. (One option for a bail-out semiclosed rebreather is found here.) Such a bail-out plan should provide greater duration than open-circuit bailout, especially if the divers are deep when they go “off the loop”.
For some military rebreather divers, there is at least one complete closed-circuit rebreather available where a diver can reach it in case of a rebreather flood-out.
For deep sea helmet diving, the bail-out rebreather is on their back and a simple valve twist will remove the diver from umbilical-supplied helmet gas to fresh rebreather gas.
The most common worry for electronically controlled rebreather divers is failure of the rig’s oxygen sensors. For that reason it is common for rebreathers to carry three oxygen sensors. Unfortunately, as the Navy and others have noted, triple redundancy really isn’t. Electronic rebreathers are largely computer controlled, and computer algorithms can allow the oxygen controller to become confused, resulting in oxygen control using bad sensors, and ignoring a correctly functioning oxygen sensor.
The U.S. Navy has performed more than one diving accident investigation where that occurred. Safety in this case can be improved by adding an independent, redundant sensor, by improving sensor voting algorithms, by better maintenance, or by methods for testing all oxygen sensors throughout a dive.
In summary, safe divers and safe pilots are always asking themselves, “What would I do if something bad happens right now?” Unfortunately, private pilots and divers quickly discover that redundancy is not cheap. However, long ago I decided that if something unexpected happened during a flight or a dive, I wouldn’t want my last thoughts to be, “If only I’d spent a little more money on redundant systems, I wouldn’t be running out of time.”
Time, like fuel and breathing air, is a commodity you can only buy before you run out of it.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not an endorsement of any diving product. Diving products shown or mentioned merely serve as examples of redundancy, and are mentioned only to further diver safety. A search of the internet by interested readers will reveal a panoply of alternative and equally capable products to enhance diver safety.
Interesting flights and interesting dives provide an opportunity for post-event introspection; debriefing if you will.
Professionally, I am called upon to analyze fatalities and near-misses for the Navy and, occasionally, the Air Force. Personally, I spend even more time analyzing “what ifs” for my own activities.
For example, recently I was preparing a video of one of my more beautiful nighttime flights with a passenger, departing the coal-mining regions of Pennsylvania, heading south over the valleys and mountains of Appalachia as the early morning sun began to brighten our part of the world. Editing that video gave me a chance to reflect on the pre-flight and in-flight decisions I made that day. There were many decisions to be made, and those decisions resulted in not only a safe flight, but a spectacular flight.
But like most things, there was also a risk, calculated, and weighted, and recalculated as conditions in flight and on the ground changed in the face of aggressive weather.
In very real ways, single pilot IFR (instrument flight rules) flight is akin to cave diving. They are both technically challenging, rewarding solo activities. However, you better be on your game, or else not play.
I was cave diving before cave diving was cool; before it was considered a technical diving specialty, before safety rules and high quality equipment was available. Trimix, scooters, and staged decompression were all decades in the future, and frankly the safety record at that time was atrocious. I am alive because I had the good sense to limit my penetration; “just a little” was enough of a sobering experience, about which I have previously written.
But this posting is not about moderation; it is a warning to those who would, for whatever reason, deliberately make bad decisions, one after the other. If after a chain of such deliberate misadventures, a fatality results, then I would say that fatality is no accident. It is a procedure; a flawed process of decision making with a more or less guaranteed fatal outcome.
Lest you lose interest in reading this post because you believe all cave divers are loonies, rest assured that could not be further from the truth. Where I work we have four very active cave divers, highly intelligent, experienced, diving deep breathing trimix (helium/nitrogen/oxygen) when necessary using scuba and rebreathers. They are safe divers who are on the cutting edge of diving research when they’re not diving for pleasure. In fact, two of them are the U.S Navy’s diving accident investigators, so they know all too well about underwater misadventures.
Friends met early in my career have been the cave explorers of the 70’s and 80’s; names you may know like Bill Gavin and John Zumrick. Another long-time friend from the Navy’s Scientist in the Sea Program, and of whom I am quite envious, is Dr. Tom Iliffe, a biologist constantly on the front edge of underwater cave biology. (My draft novel, Children of the Middle Waters, includes a story about his beloved Remipedes.)
All these cave divers have survived due to their sane and balanced approach to risk management; moderation in all things. But sadly, not all divers I’ve come to know, one way or the other, have been so sensible and measured.
One was a wonderfully gracious man, a Navy diver who had a hobby: free diving. He’d tell me how he enjoyed surprising divers in the main cave at Morrison Springs, Florida when he would swim up to them and wave, while wearing no breathing equipment at all except that with which he was born.
I’m sure they were shocked; I know I would be.
After a while, as he gained experience with this solo recreation, he began to confide in me, and ask me questions about events he’d experienced. He told me how pleasant it was sometimes when he would surface. I warned him about shallow water blackout, loss of consciousness on ascent, and explained the physical laws that made breath-hold diving so dangerous; at least in the manner in which he practiced it.
The last day I saw him alive, he once again came in for consultation, and told me about the euphoria he had experienced a few days before. I was of course extremely concerned and told him that what he described sounded like a near death experience. The next time he might not be lucky enough to survive, I told him. Later I heard more of that story; the previous weekend he had been found floating unconscious on the surface, but was revived.
Soon after that, this diver was again found, but this time his dive had proven fatal. His personal agenda for thrills exceeded all bounds of either training or common sense. And those thrills killed him.
The only solace I could find was that he wanted to share his experience and bravado, but he clearly was not interested in really hearing the truth, no matter how hard I worked to educate and dissuade him. While some might call this young man’s mental status as a perpetual death wish, I would argue that he never consciously thought he would die; at least not that way. Life was good, in his perspective, and I suspect he thought he was smart enough to make sure it continued that way.
Unfortunately when we were talking, we did not know just how close the end was.
The same was true I suspect for another well-liked diver who was the subject of a fatality report I helped write several years later. It was a rebreather fatality at Jackson Blue Spring in Marianna, Florida. The decedent was reportedly an experienced diver. I won’t belabor the story because the NEDU report is available on the internet (released by his family and available on the Rebreather Forum).
Nevertheless, the sequence of events leading to his demise involved a surprisingly long list of decision points which should have prevented the fatal dive from occurring. As each opportunity to change the course of events was reached, poor choices were made. In combination those choices led inexorably to his demise.
By now we know that even the U.S. Navy is not immune to poor decision trees. In fact, I would argue that wishful thinking is a common factor among people with intelligence and technical ability, and those with a “get it done” attitude. People who fix problems for a living are seemingly resistant to admitting that sometimes the bridge really is too far, and some problems are better fixed in the shop than in the field.
Gareth Lock of Cranfield University, Bedfordshire, U.K. is currently collecting data on diving incidents through a questionnaire on “The Role of Human Factors in SCUBA Diving Incidents and Accidents”. Like me, he has both an aviation and diving background. Gareth is serious about trying to understand and reduce diving accidents. Links to a description of his work, and his questionnaire can be found here and here. If you are a diver, please consider contributing much needed information.
Every night a pilot from Atlanta makes a round-robin cargo flight to Albany GA and Dothan AL, then continues down to the coast to load cargo from Panama City FL, Pensacola, and Mobile AL before returning home. He used to fly a single engine Beech Bonanza, but now pilots a Baron, a twin-engine, 190 kt fast mover.
On really rough weather nights I’ve watched vicariously through FlightAware.com as he scurries away from lethal skies and diverts to any safe harbor. His cargo is your lifeblood, literally, but it’s not worth dying for.
He makes that flight each night because during the day in each of those cities patients had blood drawn at their doctor’s office. The samples that will tell the doctor the life and death stories of the day’s patients are whisked away to a large laboratory near Atlanta for processing overnight.
After taking off from Gwinnett County Airport near Lawrenceville, GA at 6 PM or so, the solitary pilot returns to his home base about midnight.
I was alerted one night that a plane I’d flown to Houston and back, a Cessna Centurion 210, had a gear collapse at the local Panama City Airport. I knew the plane well.
Unfortunately, shortly after the only runway was closed the Quest Diagnostics Baron approached the area, attempting to land. I turned on my aviation radio and heard the “850”, as it’s called, being told to hold, circling, while airfield crews attempted to move the damaged Centurion off the runway.
And that’s where the politicians come in.
Local Panama City politicians felt obliged to close down the Panama City airport with two runways (formerly known as PFN) and relocate to a larger facility, again with two runways. The new two runway airport, KECP, looked great in an artist’s rendition.
But artists don’t build airports. The reason why the second runway was not built is not a subject for this blog posting. What is the subject, is that promises made to the citizens of Panama City were not promises kept. And on that night as “850” circled overhead, there would be real consequences for the political decisions which had been made.
Once construction began on the main 10,000 ft long runway at the donated site, all mention of the second runway was forgotten; not by the local pilots, but by the local politicians and the land company.
Second runways serve important purposes. They are usually called “cross-wind” runways. I’ve landed many times on the cross-wind runway at PFN, and I’ve also been on Delta flights that used that runway when the wind across the main runway was dangerously high.
Cross-wind runways are not only a safety factor for overbearing wind conditions, but also provide an alternate landing site in case the main-runway is closed due to an aircraft being stuck on the runway.
That night as “850” was trying to land to pick up the day’s tissue samples from the Panama City area, the main runway was closed by the broken Centurion, and there was no backup runway. The pilot circled Panama City until his fuel became critical, and then he flew on to his next stop in Pensacola.
So all the blood drawn from patients in the Panama City area that day missed the trip to the Quest Diagnostics laboratory, due to a promise made but not kept.
But I suppose that is hardly news. Rather, it appears to be deeply woven into the very fabric of politics.
As a professional in underwater diving, and an amateur airman, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the causes of accidents and “near-misses”. If you’re reading this in early 2014, you are no doubt aware of several recent incidents of commercial and military jets landing at the wrong airport. In the latest case there was a potential for massive casualties, but disaster was averted at the last possible moment.
As they say, to err is human. From my own experience, I know the truth of that adage in science, medicine, diving, and the subject of this posting, aviation. Pilot errors catch everyone’s attention because we, the public, know that such errors could personally inconvenience us, or worse. But lesser known are the sometimes subtle factors that cause human error.
I can honestly tell you exactly what I was doing and thinking that caused errors at the very end of long flights. Those errors, none of which were particularly dangerous or newsworthy, were nonetheless caused by the same elements that have been discovered in numerous fatal accidents. Namely, what I was seeing, was not at all what I thought I was seeing.
Long before the advent of GPS navigation, cell phones and electronic charts, I was flying myself and an Army friend (we had both been in Army ROTC at Georgia Tech) from Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD to Georgia. I was dropping him off in Atlanta at Peachtree-Dekalb Airport, and then I would fly down to Thomasville in Southwest Georgia where my young wife awaited me.
Since it was February most of the planned six hour flight was at night. We couldn’t take-off until we both got off duty on a Friday.
I had planned the flight meticulously, but I had not counted on the fuel pumps being shut down at our first planned refueling spot. After chatting with some local aviators about the closest source of fuel, we took off on a detour to an airport some thirty miles distant. That unplanned detour was stressful, as I was not entirely sure we’d find fuel when we arrived. Fortunately, we were able to tank up, and continue on our slow journey. We were flying in my 2-seat Cessna 150, and traveling no faster than about 120 mph, so the trip to Atlanta was a fatiguing and dark flight.
As we eventually neared Atlanta, I was reading the blue, yellow and green paper sectional charts under the glow of red light from the overhead cabin lamp. Lights of the Peachtree-Dekalb airport were seemingly close at hand, surrounded by a growing multitude of other city lights. Happy that I was finally reaching Atlanta, I called the tower and got no answer. No matter, it was late, and many towers shut down operations fairly early, about 10 PM or so. So I announced my position and intentions, and landed.
The runway was in the orientation I had expected, and my approach to landing was just as I had planned. However, as I taxied off the runway, I realized the runway environment was not as complex as it should have been. We taxied back and forth for awhile trying to sort things out, before I realized I’d landed 18 nautical miles short of my planned destination.
I had so much wanted that airport to be PDK, but in my weariness I had missed the signs that it was not. I had landed at Gwinnett County Airport, not Peachtree-Dekalb.
No harm was done, but my flight to Thomasville was seriously delayed by the two extra airport stops. It was after 1 AM before I was safe at the Thomasville, GA airport, calling my worried wife to pick me up.
She was not a happy young wife.
A few years later, I added an instrument ticket to my aviation credentials, and thought that the folly of my youth was far behind me. Now, advance quite a few decades, to a well-equipped, modern cross-country traveling machine, a Piper Arrow with redundant GPS navigation and on-board weather. I often fly in weather, and confidently descend through clouds to a waiting runway. So what could go wrong?
Wrong no. 2 happened when approaching Baltimore-Washington International airport after flying with passengers from the Florida Panhandle. Air Traffic Control was keeping me pretty far from the field as we circled Baltimore to approach from the west. I had my instrumentation set-up for an approach to the assigned runway, but after I saw a runway, big and bold in the distance, I was cleared to land, and no longer relied on the GPS as I turned final.
As luck would have it, just a minute before that final turn we saw President George W. Bush and his decoy helicopters flying in loose formation off our port side. I might have been a little distracted.
In the city haze it had been hard to see the smaller runway pointing in the same direction as the main runway. So I was lining up with the easy-to-see large runway, almost a mile away from where I should have been. It was the same airport of course, but the wrong parallel runway.
I was no doubt tired, and somewhat hurried by the high traffic flow coming into a major hub for Baltimore and Washington. Having seen what I wanted to see, a large runway pointed in the correct direction, I assumed it was the right one, and stopped referring to the GPS and ILS (Instrument Landing System) navigation which would have revealed my error.
The tower controller had apparently seen that error many times before and gently nudged me verbally back on course. The flight path was easily corrected and no harm done. But I had proven to myself once again that at the end of a long trip, you tend to see what you want to see.
Several years later I had been slogging through lots of cloud en-route to Dayton, Ohio. I had meetings to attend at Wright Patterson Air Force base. It was again a long flight, but I was relaxed and enjoying the scenery as I navigated with confidence via redundant GPS (three systems operating at the same time).
As I was approaching Dayton, Dayton Approach was vectoring me toward the field. They did a great job I thought as they set me up perfectly for the left downwind at the landing airport. But then I became a bit perturbed that they had vectored me almost on top of the airport and then apparently forgotten about me. So I let them know that I had the airport very much in sight. They switched me to tower, and I was given clearance to land.
As I began descending for a more normal pattern altitude, the Dayton Tower called and said I seemed to be maneuvering for the wrong airport. In fact, I was on top of Wright Patterson Airbase, not Dayton International.
Rats! Not again.
Well, the field was certainly large enough, but once again I had locked eyes on what seemed to be the landing destination, and in fact was being directed there by the authority of the airways, Air Traffic Control (ATC). And so I was convinced during a busy phase of flight that I was doing what I should have been doing, flying visually with great care and attention. However, I was so busy that my mind had tunnel vision. I had once again not double checked the GPS navigator to see that I was being vectored to a large landmark which happened to lie on the circuitous path to the landing airport. (I wish they’d told me that, but detailed explanations are rarely given over busy airwaves.)
Oddly enough, if I had been in the clouds making an instrument approach, these mind-bending errors could not have happened. But when flight conditions are visual, the mind can easily pick a target that meets many of the correct criteria like direction and proximity, and then fill in the blanks with what it expects to see. In other words, it is easy in the visual environment to focus with laser beam precision on the wrong target. With all the situational awareness tools at my disposal, they were of no use once my brain made the transition outside the cockpit.
To be fair, distracting your gaze from the outside world to check internal navigation once you’re in a critical visual phase of approach and landing can be dangerous. That’s why it’s good to have more than one pilot in the cockpit. But my cockpit crew that day was me, myself and I; in that respect I was handicapped.
Apparently, even multiple crew members in military and commercial airliners are occasionally lulled into the same trap. At least that’s what the newspaper headlines say.
My failings are in some ways eerily similar to reports from military and commercial incidents. Contributing factors in the above incidents are darkness, fatigue, and distraction. When all three of these factors are combined, the last factor that can cause the entire house of cards, and airplane, to come tumbling down, is the brain’s ability to morph reality into an image which the mind expects to see. Our ability to discern truth from fiction is not all that clear when encountering new and unexpected events and environments.
The saving grace that aviation has going for it is generally reliable communication. ATC saved me from major embarrassment on two of these three occasions.
I only wish that diving had as reliable a means for detecting and avoiding errors.
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.
There are sports, there are professions, then there are sojourns.
Astronauts are sojourners, as are pilots and mountain climbers and underwater divers. While the sojourner may have carefully planned his sojourn, warding off potential trouble by using good equipment and training, it is the return to normalcy that oftentimes presents the greatest and most unexpected danger.
For scuba divers, return to the surface can be accompanied by decompression sickness and air embolism. When diving in cold water, the very act of rising towards the surface can induce a scuba regulator to free flow, spilling a precious gas supply.
For pilots the sojourn can end badly on landing. This fact has been in the news lately, where seemingly inexplicable crashes occurred in large transport aircraft. I shake my head and wonder why, knowing full well that once you take a sojourn for granted, it can devour you. I also know full well that I am not immune.
I was recently reminded of that during a short 34-mile flight returning a retractable gear aircraft from maintenance back to my home base, Panama City, FL. Most pilots know that, ironically, aircraft maintenance can be risky. While maintenance on diving equipment or airplanes is certainly a critical part of safe operation, at the same time it is an opportunity for a mechanic to inadvertently damage a critical component.
I have seen a maintenance-related failure of a scuba regulator, and I was about to see it with my aircraft as I followed a business jet towards a landing at our local airport. To keep traffic flowing smoothly I kept my speed up on approach until close to the runway. When I finally slowed enough to drop the landing gear I saw two green “gear safe” lights rather than the expected three. My main gear seemed to be down and locked, but the nose wheel lock indication was not glowing that reassuring green.
“Tower, I have a problem with my gear. I need to leave the area and sort out the problem.”
I left the airport airspace and spent a full hour burning fuel, running through all emergency checklist items, pulling G’s to help the gear lock down and waiting for a Southwest Airlines flight to arrive. The local airport, which receives quite a bit of commercial jet traffic (Delta and Southwest) only has one runway. If my gear collapsed on touch-down, that single runway would have been shut down for an hour or more, and arriving flights would have to land elsewhere. There are not a lot of good alternate airports near Panama City.
The sun was getting low, and I did not want to make that landing at night. Besides, my wife was below, waiting anxiously for whatever was going to happen. She was due to pick me up at the hangar, but she and I both knew the aircraft might not make it far past the touchdown point on the runway.
After flying past the tower twice and having them inspect the gear with binoculars, the tower controller said the gear looked down, but I knew there was no way to tell if it was down and locked. If the nose gear was not locked, it would collapse on landing.
Fortunately I was alone in the cockpit so I could come to grips with what I was about to do without the distraction of worried passengers. I announced my intentions to land, and on my last circuit of the field I saw the crash rescue truck and fire truck pulling into position along the runway. That was a sight no pilot ever wants to see.
As I turned towards the runway I reviewed the landing checklist one last time, and then I was ready. As I turned final it was time to get it over with. Whatever would happen would happen, and there was nothing more I could do about it.
Approaching the runway and ready to land, my mind was focused on only one thing — making the landing as smooth as possible.
The main wheels squeaked as they touched the concrete, ever so gently, and with steady back pressure on the yoke I kept the nose high, sparing the nose gear as long as possible as the plane slowed.
When gravity overcame the aerodynamic lift on the nose, the wheel settled to the runway — and rolled.
My first word to the tower was, “Thank God!”
“Indeed”, they replied. They had been holding their breath as well, as they later told me.
The next day when the mechanics drove in, it only took them five minutes to adjust a tab on the nose gear down-lock switch. Such a simple fix for such a lot of drama.
Now that I’ve had time to reflect on the incident, I’ve come to appreciate the valor of the silver-suited firefighters who approached me after the landing, the firefighters who are prepared to thrust themselves into the flames to rescue those whose sojourns have gone awry. I was also appreciative of the calm-voiced air field controller whose only weapon against calamity was the calm tone of his voice.
Calm is a good thing when you’re trying to land a plane with all the tenderness of putting a candle on a birthday cake.
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.
[youtube id=”GASFa7rkLtM” w=”600″ h=”500″]
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.
[youtube id=”wjtOycH0bQc” w=”600″ h=”500″]
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.
[youtube id=”2OL4FdIQrV4″ w=”600″ h=”500″]
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.
“Respiratory embarrassment” is an uncommon phrase most likely spoken by physicians and physiologists.
This week I found myself telling an engineer that “respiratory embarrassment can lead to an untoward event”. It quickly became apparent from the puzzled stare I received that I was not communicating.
Scientists and some medical personnel tend to do that; fail to communicate. In fact, they do it a lot.
What I was really saying is that in the right circumstances a person could have difficulty breathing, and that difficulty could cause something bad to happen; an “untoward” event. That bad thing would not necessarily be an aircraft crash, or in the case of a diver, a drowning, but it would mean that the pilot’s or diver’s performance would be impaired.
Why didn’t I just say so?
Laziness I suppose. I was using the language clinicians and physiologists are taught in graduate or medical school, and it flows out of our mouths naturally, without effort. Translating those same words into laymen’s terms takes time and effort.
I next started talking about respiratory impedance, a term understood by some but not all engineers, and rarely if ever by laymen. So once again I was not communicating well with all of my audience which was composed mostly of engineers, but not entirely.
That was the case until I used pictures to explain the otherwise difficult concepts of respiratory impedance and physiological embarrassment. The images below seemed to work, so I thought it worthwhile to share those images with you.
For you engineers, respiratory impedance is proportional to the sum of respiratory flow resistance and pulmonary and chest wall elastance.
So what is that?
Well, for elastance, at least chest wall elastance, think of being buried to your neck in sand. Breathing difficulty comes from the difficulty of moving your chest wall in and out with the weight of sand pressing in on all sides. The pressure of sand impedes your breathing, hence elasticity (the inverse of compliance) is a major component of respiratory impedance.
Based on the photo of the young man pictured on the right, being partly buried for supposedly therapeutic reasons is not a pleasant experience.
Some might disagree. The man on the left is an actor in the 2008 French short film Le Tonneau des Danaïdes by David Guiraud, who seems quite at ease impeding his breathing for the sake of art. I’m guessing he’s either very dedicated, or very well paid.
In diving, respiratory elastance can be elevated by tight fitting wet suits; in aviators by tight fitting chest pressure garments, and in patients, by pulmonary fibrosis brought about by, for example, asbestos exposure.
Another key component of respiratory impedance, that thing that causes respiratory embarrassment, is flow resistance. Sticking your head in the sand would certainly be one way of generating
severe respiratory resistance, with its attendant embarrassment.
Clinically, there are far more common sources of respiratory resistance, for example the narrowing of air passages in the lung caused by asthma. (Sticking your head in sand is probably a reasonable analogy to the sensations experienced during an asthma attack.) Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can also lead to a significant increase in respiratory resistance.
When you focus on the human respiratory system, the body parts shown in pink below, keep in mind that breathing can be impaired by things occurring inside the body (like asthma, COPD, fibrosis) or outside the body. Any life support system used for aviation, diving, mining, or firefighting imposes an impedance on breathing. That impedance in turn can lead to breathing difficulty, which can result in a failure to complete assigned duties.
Perhaps that’s where the “embarrassment” part comes in.
Recently my inner child took notice of a circle of light racing across the cloud tops as I cruised at 7000 feet and 180 mph with the prevailing westerlies at my back. I was headed east above the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and the Florida Panhandle, and the late afternoon sun crept ever lower behind my right wing. Like a fighter in loose formation, the ring of colored light was keeping pace with the aircraft, just in front of my left wing.
My adult self realized that the spot contained a shadow of the airplane, but the bright halos around the dark shadow puzzled me. When my inner child asked me what it was, I had no ready answer.
I’d seen those halos before without really understanding them, but now I had a chance to photograph them. I grabbed cameras and recorded the beautiful phenomenon while the autopilot kept the aircraft on course.
One of the advantages of general aviation aircraft is that we often fly at the altitudes of the DC3s, the early airliners. Which meant that at 7000 feet I could open a small window beside me without depressurizing the cabin and give the camera a clear view of what I was experiencing.
An understanding of what I was seeing would have to wait.
[youtube id=”sV90o44sCE8″ w=”700″ h=”600″]
With few exceptions, Glories remain in the realm of pilots and Angels. By association, many pilots feel privileged to see a glory. I know I do.
Without knowing the science behind glories, pilots may even interpret them as signs of the divine. After all, they do look suspiciously like halos seen in medieval religious art. Indeed, “glory” is another name for those iconic halos.
Science is only able to partly demystify the subject of glories. The best technical explanation is that glories are the result of reflections (back-scattering) of sunlight coming from directly behind the observer. The tiny spherical water drops in clouds are the objects that scatter the sun light. Oddly enough, the size of the water droplets determines the size of the glory, which by the way may contain multiple rings as seen on the videos in this posting.
This process of ring formation from water droplets is called Mie Scattering, and is described mathematically by Mie Theory. Phillip Laven’s website, http://www.philiplaven.com/index1.html, provides an ample resource for the curious.
Glories have proven to be such an elusive quarry, that I, like many pilots, have developed a fascination with them. Therefore I could not resist making a brief video, with music, of the glories encountered on that one eastward flight. In it you see a classical glory, followed by a fleeting and hard to photograph glory on the side of a cloud, followed by apparent flight into an ever moving cloudbow.
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.
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.
A diver’s breathing equipment, helmet, gas bottle, umbilicals and buoyancy compensator lie stretched out on the grey concrete floor. The diving gear has a look of sadness about it. Perhaps that equipment will tell a story of why its owner is dead, but usually it does not.
In another part of the world the NTSB catalogs the fragments of an airplane shredded by the elements and thrown in a heap back to earth. The only good thing to come from an aircraft accident is that usually there are enough clues from wreckage, radio recordings, radar returns and weather reports to piece together a story of the end of life for pilot and passengers.
It’s always the question of “Why?” that drives any investigation.
Perhaps it is the knowing of how death comes, so unexpectedly to surprised souls, that makes it just a little bit easier to make the mental and emotional connection between an interesting moment and a deadly moment. If that is true, and I believe it is, then the telling of such macabre stories can be justified. It is not a telling through morbid interest, but a sincere belief that by examining death closely enough we can somehow force it to keep its distance.
That may be foolish thinking, but humankind seems to have a hunger for it, that esoteric knowledge, so perhaps it is a truism. Perhaps we sense instinctively that the knowing of something makes it less fearsome.
Being a student of diving and diving accidents, I know full well how unexpected events can make you question what is real and what is not, what is normal and what is abnormal. Without practiced calm and reasoning, unexpected events can induce panic, and underwater, panic often leads to death. That is also true for aviation.
The best preventative for panic is a realistic assessment of risk. Risks are additive. For instance, flying in the clouds is accompanied by a slight degree of risk, but with a properly maintained airplane, with a judicious use of backup instruments and power supplies, and with recent and effective training, that risk can be managed. In fact, I delight in flying in clouds; it is never boring, and I know that I am far safer than if I had been driving on two lane roads where the potential for death passes scant feet away every few seconds.
Flying at night is another risk. If something were to go terribly wrong, finding a safe place to land becomes a gamble. On the other hand, seeing and avoiding aircraft at night is simple because of the brilliant strobe lighting which festoons most aircraft. For me, the beauty, peace and calm air of night flight makes it well worth the slight risk.
Technology has made weather flying safer and, I have to admit, more enjoyable. The combination of GPS driven maps and NEXRAD weather has made it almost impossible to blunder into truly bad weather. During the daytime, my so-called eyeball radar helps to confirm visually what NEXRAD is painting in front of me. If it looks threatening, it probably is.
Unlike aircraft weather radar, virtually every pilot can afford to have NEXRAD weather in the cockpit. And unlike aviation radar, NEXRAD can see behind storms to show the view 100 miles downrange, or more. Having often flown in stormy weather without benefit of NEXRAD, I truly rejoice in the benefits of that technology.
I routinely fly with not only NEXRAD, but also a “Storm Scope” that shows me in real time where lightning is ionizing the sky. Those ozone-laced areas are off-limits to wise aviators. But sometimes even a Storm Scope is not enough to keep the willies, or as some call it, your spidey sense, from striking. (Presumably spiders are not particularly cerebral, but they are pretty adept at surviving, at least as a genus and species.)
I was recently flying around stormy weather, carefully avoiding the worst of it, and maneuvered into a position that would provide a straight shot home with yellow tints showing on the weather screen, suggesting at most light to moderate precipitation. I had flown that sort of weather many times; it usually held just enough rain to wet the windshield.
However, my internal risk computer made note of the following factors: we were in the clouds so if weather worsened I wouldn’t see it. Night was approaching which markedly darkened the wet skies we were beginning to enter. The clouds and darkness conspired to make useless my eyeball radar. In addition, the Storm Scope was unusually ambiguous at that moment. I thought it was confirming a safe passage home, but I could not be 100% certain.
On top of that, the FAA recently warned that NEXRAD signals can be considerably more delayed than indicated on the weather display. The device might say the data is 2 min old, but the actual delay could be 10 minutes or more. In other words, the displayed image could be hiding the truth.
Planes have been lost because of untimely NEXRAD data. For that reason there is a philosophical difference between NEXRAD and true radar. On board weather radar is said to be a tactical weather penetration aid, and NEXRAD is a strategic avoidance asset. My gut told me that at that moment in airspace and time the boundaries between those two uses, tactical and strategic, were getting fuzzy.
It is times like that when an awareness of the slim margin between a safe flight or dive, and a deadly flight or dive, becomes a survival tool. In this case, I and many other experienced pilots have made the call to turn around and land. Unfortunately, the record and the landscape is littered with the wreckage of those who chose otherwise.
They forgot just how thin the margin of safety can be.
Some people command your attention, without effort or intention on their part. For the few seconds that it took for her to walk past me, the lady pilot was one of those people.
She was an attractive blond, and tall, and her posture in no way diminished her height. She walked with poise and purpose, chatting and smiling to another pilot in those Navy Blue Delta Airlines Uniforms. The fact that she had four stripes on her shoulder, indicating her Captain’s rank, immediately explained part of her purposefulness. The fact that she was, or appeared, young, in her early to mid-thirties, spelled out her competence, which I sensed immediately. It was doubtful she could have risen so quickly through the ranks unless she excelled at her job.
The fact that she was attractive is not what separated her from the other women in the Atlanta concourse at that same moment. There were lots of pretty girls there. Her bearing was as if she was in Command of a U. S. Navy heavy Cruiser; that’s what separated her from the rest.
As I later sat in a window seat of our Boeing 757 being readied for departure to Pittsburgh, I saw that the blond Captain was indeed in charge of a heavy cruiser; a 757-200 (FAA registered as N604DL) parked beside us. I watched her as she climbed down the steps of the boarding platform and performed her inspection walk around the aircraft she would be commanding. If she is like most pilots, she would also be admiring the beautiful machine she had the good fortune to fly, while thinking about her responsibility for the lives of the passengers who would soon be boarding.
She must have made that walk thousands of time in her career, but every little part of the aircraft visible to her was examined. The fact that most of those parts loomed far above her attested to the size of the aircraft, and made her job more difficult. But she took her time, being fully devoted to her work.
I once asked a Captain and First Officer pair how it was decided who would make the walk around the aircraft. The wise-old Captain said it depended on the weather; and the experienced first officer agreed, smiling broadly. That day in Atlanta the weather was fair, and not too hot, but I got the feeling that lady pilot would do that job regardless of the weather.
As I watched this Delta Captain make her rounds and return up the stairs to her office, the 757 cockpit, I thought that I had just witnessed a nascent cinematic moment. But this pilot was no movie star, in all probability, although I’m sure she could have been, if that had been her ambition.
And then in a three-second flash of irony, I saw her on the video screen no more than 12 inches away from my face. Our 757 crew was playing a video safety brief, and in the closing frames that blond pilot looked back from her left seat in the cockpit of a Delta jet and said with her easy smile, “Welcome to Delta.”
As I later reached my hotel room in Pittsburg, I opened up Flight Aware on my iPad and found that N604DL was nearing its destination of Las Vegas. I smiled, thinking that Delta’s passengers on that flight were willing to gamble on the slots and card tables, but they didn’t have to gamble on their flight. They had an ace in the cockpit.
If you are interested in a career in commercial aviation, you might find a blog posting on the Delta Airlines web site of interest. It’s written by an African-American female who was a copilot for Delta at the time of the writing. It describes how she ended up in the right seat of a major commercial carrier.
Not every animal that flies is an aviator. June bugs and mosquitoes fly without any particular destination in mind; they just seem to flit around, hoping to detect a random meal. In my way of thinking, to be called an aviator you have to navigate, to use the air as a travel medium with a destination in mind, either consciously or subconsciously. By definition, navigation is not random; it is purposeful. Migrating Monarch Butterflies qualify as navigators and aviators, and so do migratory Bats.
While visiting Austin, Texas, I searched the front pages of the Austin Telephone directory for points of interest. No. 1 on their list was the nightly bat show at the downtown Congress Ave. Bridge.
I was just one of hundreds (maybe thousands) of tourists waiting on and around the bridge to see the show that night. Once downtown I was told that about half of the 1.5 million strong Mexican free-tailed bat colony had already migrated to Mexico for the winter, but the remaining bats might put on a good show at sundown. They did.
Once the skies had fully darkened, I saw what looked like a soundless horizontal waterfall of bats erupt from underneath the crevices of the bridge structure. Can you imagine 1000 planes a second leaving a major airport at the same time, using all available runways, with no controllers and no collisions? That’s how it seemed.
I watched with morbid fascination as a very fat bug made the biggest mistake of its short life by blundering near the bat departure pattern. At least five bats peeled out of the pattern and within milliseconds honed in on the hapless target. The first bat to the target must have gotten a meal because the squishy bug disappeared out of the traffic pattern with nary a puff of smoke. No NTSB investigation needed.
Walking up on the bridge for a different view I saw an even more incredible sight. Every once and awhile a bat jetting up the departure pathway would make a high speed 180° turn and head straight back into the torrent, without getting hit, best I could tell in the midst of the furiously flinging wings. It made the head-to-head passes of the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels look like child’s play. Why they did that I don’t know; maybe just for the adrenaline rush.
On the other hand, even the best aviators can screw up. I saw evidence of this back in Panama City while looking out at my pool one evening. In the dim light I could see ripples in the usually glass smooth surface of the pool. On investigating, I found a Little Brown Bat in the pool, spreading its wings to support itself by the surface tension of the water. They really were — dare I say it — water wings. But it was clearly tired and in danger of drowning.
Had his bat radar gone on the fritz? Or did he just mess up like the occasional seaplane pilot who becomes disoriented by a glassy water surface. On the one hand, bats can maneuver safely through a storm of oncoming high velocity fellow bats, but could be foiled by something as innocuous as a still water surface. Strange.
I guess even great human pilots have messed up for lesser reasons.
I scooped up the bat in a net and laid the wet furball on the ground to recuperate. Oddly, after a minute’s rest, the bat started crawling forward towards my foot using the hooks on its wings to pull himself along. Then he climbed onto my shoe. My Granddaughter who was watching the whole scene thought that was very strange. I did too.
But then the little water-soaked bat started climbing up my slightly nervous leg. I assure you the sensation of having a bat crawl up your leg can be discomforting, but my sense of curiosity was far more compelling. I was trusting he wasn’t looking for a place to bite me. However, as he got closer to my most sensitive region, that thought began to really concern me. Fortunately all he wanted to do was climb, to safety from predators I assume. At least he didn’t consider me a predator. Maybe he thought I was a tree: I was, after all, standing oh so still.
As he approached my neck I began to wonder whether he was a werebat, looking for a succulent neck. Then it occurred to me that fleshy earlobes might be ripe for biting — like fat bugs perhaps, in a bat’s mind. Yet strangely I didn’t feel threatened, even when I could feel his hooked wings gently grab a “handhold” on my neck.
I then realized that once he reached the top of my head he had nowhere to go. And the thought of a bat sitting on my head for a while was not all that appealing. I wasn’t about to pick him off my head without a thickly-gloved hand. They do have teeth.
So I choose a non-confrontational course of action. I leaned my head into a tall pine tree trunk, and sure enough the soaking wet little bat kept on going. The photo below taken from behind him shows him (or her) continuing the ever-so-slow climb.
I have mixed emotions about the fact that my granddaughter did not take a picture of me leaning my head against the tree — with a bat on my head.
Moral of the story for human aviators? The little guys are absolutely awesome fliers, with unbelievably fast reflexes, unerring navigation, and the best possible terrain avoidance equipment. But even they can screw up. And when they do, their survival depends on the help of others; others willing to take a risk to help the fallen air-critters.
I was pleased to share this Nature moment with my Granddaughter. After all, it’s not every day you get to watch a bat climb your Grandfather, from his toes to his head.
Every fall I look forward to the current of Monarch Butterflies coursing their way across our local roads and beaches in Panama City Beach, FL, searching for one last refueling stop before heading out across the Gulf of Mexico to overseas destinations. They know where they are going enmasse, so casually it seems, not in the least concerned about the doubtful safety of single engine flight over vast stretches of unforgiving water.
While over land, most fly low, at human shoulder height, perhaps looking for food. It makes for an almost magical walk outside — continuously being passed by little animated flying machines. When crossing roads, most of the migrating butterflies, but not all, climb to safer altitudes, and increase their speed. I like to think that strategy is deliberate, but it could in fact be nothing more than the effects of buffeting by the wake of passing cars. Nevertheless, their success rate at crossing roads seems to be better than that of squirrels, which are arguably larger-brained animals. But then squirrels are dare-devils, not aviators.
I have walked to the water’s edge, watching how the little aviators behave as they approach the beginning of their long leg over water. They do not hesitate, but fling themselves forward into whatever awaits them.
Whenever I witness this sight I want to cheer them on, like Americans must have cheered Lindbergh as he set off across the Atlantic for the first time. It seems like folly for them to attempt such a journey, but amazingly, millions of them make that transit every year.
The scene during their return in the spring is even more emotional. Walking on the beach at that time, you see the surf washing in the numerous bodies of those aviators who almost made it, reminiscent of the beaches at Normandy. And like the scenes of war, dragonflies lie in wait at the water’s edge attacking the weakened Monarchs soon as they cross over the relative safety of land.
I have been so infuriated at the sight of such wanton attacks that once I chased a heavily laden dragonfly with a Monarch in its grasp, and caused the little Messerschmitt to release its prey.
The Monarch I saved did not thank-me by landing on my shoulder to take a breather. It was too dangerous to stop, and it had places to go, places far away from the sea, driven by a genetic memory of fields of milkweed.
Oddly enough, experts seem unsure as to whether there is actually a migratory flyway from the Panama City area to Mexico, the over-wintering grounds for most Monarchs. To me the answer is obvious; even though the flight of roughly 800 miles over water with no place to feed is almost unimaginable. The little aviators make that trip, spring and fall, as proven by the millions of orange and black-rayed butterflies crossing the white sand shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and by the surf-washed bodies of those brave aviators who died in the attempt.
“HEVVN” is the politically correct, government approved spelling for a place pronounced, as you might expect, “Heaven”. I’ve been there, and I could go again today if I wanted. But since I’m still a living, breathing person I can’t stay there.
It should come as no surprise to you that HEVVN is not a town or city; it’s nowhere on land. It’s not an island: it’s not on the water. It can best be described as an ephemeral place somewhere in the “air”; in space if you will.
Theoretically, an infinite number of people could be at HEVVN all at the same time, without actually being at the exact same place at the same time. There is, in other words, considerable spatial ambiguity, uncertainty, about where one might be in HEVVN. In an earthly sense, two people at HEVVN might be miles apart, not even able to see each other, not even aware of each other’s presence.
I would guess that on a typical day, thousands arrive at HEVVN: on a slow day, maybe merely hundreds.
If the government admits to a HEVVN, does it admit to a HELL? Well, not exactly. But it does admit to a SATAN.
But don’t worry – if you’re at HEVVN, you won’t be anywhere near SATAN. HEVVN and SATAN are a thousand miles apart.
I’m still being serious…really.
Are you confused? Well, here’s an explanation. HEVVN is a Federal Aviation Administration defined airway intersection used, along with an assigned altitude, to define an aircraft’s position. HEVVN lies roughly ten miles off the coast of the Florida Panhandle, and connects the major flyways of the Florida Panhandle and the north-south air corridors of the Florida penisula. Theoretically many aircraft can simultaneously be at HEVVN, as long as they are separated by at least 500 feet in altitude.
SATAN is a wicked sounding GPS fix a few miles north of the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease Tradeport near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I am surprised Portsmouth would allow itself to be associated with such a diabolical name, but perhaps the government never told the city elders before it was too late to change the name. Or perhaps the word SATAN no longer engenders the fear and loathing it used to.
SATAN intersection (red triangle). Click for larger image.
Oddly enough, SATAN is included in a much more innocent sounding group of GPS fixes, those defining a GPS approach to runway 16 at Pease Airport. When cleared for the GPS 16 approach coming from the west, the aircraft is expected to follow sequentially a route to the airport using up to five GPS fixes. Those five fixes, including the two “missed approach” fixes used in case a pilot can’t find the runway due to low clouds, are named thusly:
ITAWT ITAWA PUDYE TTATT … IDEED.
Apparently someone at the FAA has a sense of humor.
If you’re not laughing, you might want to say those five words in quick succession. If you’re still puzzled, try repeating it with your best Tweety Bird impression.
After the FAA named a point in space SATAN, someone must have decided some comic relief, à la Warner Brothers, was needed. And a famous quotation from the canary named Tweety Bird somehow seemed appropriate.
Affordable, high definition cameras are opening up a world of sporting video to those who can’t compete with the pros. For aviators, we get to share our passion, the beauty of flight!
I recently borrowed a GoPro camera and gave it a try. The flight in the Piper Arrow was short, 29 nm, from the new airport at Panama City (ECP) to DeFuniak Springs. The sky was spectacular and the air was fresh from the north but at a mercifully pleasant temperature for February (low seventies in °F). The air was a little turbulent below 2500 feet, explaining the slight bumpiness of the video at low altitude.
After takeoff, climbing to smooth air, I circled over the cypress and hardwood-lined Choctawhatchee river which heads south from southern Alabama to empty into the Choctawhatchee Bay near Destin and Ft. Walton in the Florida Panhandle. As shown below, that river drains some of the best scuba and cave-diving springs in Florida, including Morrison Spring, featured in the previous post.
Locally, there seems to be some nonchalance about the spelling of Defuniak, De Funiak or DeFuniak. The French care of course, but the locals don’t. Surprisingly, the town was not named after a French trader with the Choctaw Indians. DeFuniak Springs was named after Fred de Funiak, the first president of the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad who envisioned DeFuniak Springs as a resort for northern visitors.
A pilot can appreciate that in the video the approach to landing in DeFuniak Springs was not as well aligned as it should have been. I had fallen victim to the visual illusion spoken of in the blog posting Killer Optical Illusions – Size Does Matter.
I usually fly into runways between 150 and 200-feet wide, including current or former military runways and the airport at Panama City. It had been a year since I’d flown into DeFuniak’s narrow 60-foot wide runway, and even though I circled the field twice I still found myself too close-in on downwind (flying parallel to the landing runway, in the opposite direction). That, plus a strong tailwind on base (perpendicular to the runway) put me past the point where I would normally line up for landing.
Over-correcting close to the ground can be fatal due to an event called the stall spin accident. It occurs when aircraft are flown incorrectly close to the ground during that potentially fateful turn to “final”, trying to line up with the runway. Being mindful of that I kept my speed up and corrected no more than necessary to find my way to the runway.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my wife was parked opposite from my intended landing spot watching the approach. I’m glad that, all things considered, it turned out well. At least it drove home my previous point that “Size Matters”.
Technical details: This HD video was taken from the cockpit of a Piper Arrow. A GoPro camera filmed the action. Royalty-free music was generated automatically by Cyberlink PowerDirector 10 with SmartSound technology.
A discrepancy between what you see and what you expect to see can prove fatal.
In graduate school at Florida State University I drove a motorcycle between Tallahassee, FL and my home in Thomasville, GA almost every day of the week, an 80-mile roundtrip. I seldom took the heavily traveled direct route. One alternative route took me through the boonies along a road that apparently rarely saw a motorcycle. One summer day, somewhere between Miccosukee and Metcalf I approached a ramshackle, rusting tin-roofed house, and out of the yard came bounding a dog which apparently lived for the excitement of chasing cars.
As bikes go, a Honda CL 350 was not a large bike. It was a combination road/trail bike called a Scrambler. It was smaller than even a 500 cc Honda, and much smaller than a car. That disparity in size caused the charging dog to misjudge his distance from me. He was falling prey to an optical illusion: objects that are smaller than you anticipate seem farther away than they actually are.
As a pilot, and knowing something about firearm marksmanship, I can admire in retrospect the animal’s uncanny ability to properly lead and zero in on a fast moving target. He was on a collision course with my 346 lb bike traveling at highway speed. Of course, when intercepting hard steel with something as fragile as a skull, it is not a good idea to complete the interception.
I well remember the image of that dog, mouth open, tongue lolling happily to the side of his maw, seeming to relish the chase of a moving vehicle. And then in an instant his expression changed when he realized that he was actually going to catch a moving vehicle.
I don’t think he had thought through the consequences of completing his intended attack.
He applied his brakes —- front legs fully and stiffly extended, toes digging into the asphalt. But he was too late; his momentum carried him headfirst into the mid-section of the bike as our paths crossed.
His car chasing days were over.
We humans might smugly think we are not so easily confused by an optical illusion based on expected sizes and shapes. After all, we are highly intelligent creatures. But we would be wrong in our smugness.
There is a new airport in the Florida Panhandle built in the middle of millions of slash pine acres. It was a land donation designed to assist the land owners with developing sylvan land into valuable real estate. Unfortunately the real estate crash has stymied development around the airport, so an aircraft flying at night into the field which boasts a long 10,000 foot runway, sees only blackness around the airport. What results is the so-called black-hole illusion.
The black-hole illusion applies to unusually long runways lit up at night and surrounded by impenetrable blackness. The runway at ECP (Panama City) is about twice as long as the usual runways used by general aviation aircraft, and at 10,000 feet is far longer than the runway at the previous Panama City airport (PFN). The almost overpowering visual illusion is that you are closer to the runway than you actually are, and that you are considerably higher than you are in reality. On final approach the unwary pilot gets the impression that he is too high, and must push the nose of the aircraft down. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. A pilot has to be on his game to resist the potentially deadly optical illusion.
In a black-hole situation, it is critical to fly by the aircraft instruments, with the altimeter being one of the most important. When in the grips of the black-hole illusion I find it very easy to fly the “pattern”, the rectangular visual approach that eventually leads you to the runway, at too low of an altitude. Now I am aware of the trap, but I still have to concentrate on the instruments and ignore the visual cues from the humongous runway. I also find new pilots flying my aircraft into the field for the first time falling into the same trap. Looks can be very deceiving.
Boeing engineers found through their night approach research that during a black hole approach flown solely by reference to the view out the windscreen, pilots will have an almost overwhelming urge to fly too low as they approach the airport. The result of such action is likely to be impact with the ground two to three miles from the runway. Details of that discussion, relying heavily on geometry, are aptly given in the following aviation news item from 2000. http://www.avweb.com/news/airman/182402-1.html.
Airline transport pilots using autopilots to fly an Instrument Landing System guided approach to the runway seldom have to worry about visual illusions. But even they can be fatally fooled when going visual. There have been at least two commercial crashes caused by the black-hole optical illusion; Alitalia Flight 4128and VASP Flight 168. (For more details, click on the Alitalia and VASP links.)
As we learn about astronomical black holes, we realize they destroy all things in their grip. However, much closer to home are personally destructive phenomena that result from nothing more than visual trickery, a vicious mental confusion between actual and perceived sizes of airport runways, and as it turns out, even between motorcycles and cars.
I was flying with friends as night was falling. We were over a mile up, the air was clear and still, not a bump to be found. City lights and major roads could be seen from over 45 miles away. We seemed to be suspended in space, with only the movement of lights sliding below our wings betraying the fact that we were traveling at 145 knots over the ground.
The fellow sitting in the seat to my right seemed interested in taking the controls, something he had never done before. I first let him handle the yoke. With the autopilot holding track so we wouldn’t get too far off course I let him see how the elevator worked to raise and lower the nose, controlling pitch. Then as I turned the autopilot off completely, I had him experiment with the rudder pedals to see how that affected the aircraft. They made the plane yaw to the left and right. Next I showed him how the ailerons on the wings work with the rudder on the tail to smooth out turns by applying roll simultaneously with yaw. That created a coordinated turn which is the most efficient and comfortable way to change direction in the air.
He was getting a mini-lesson in flying, and doing quite well for a novice.
Then I told him to point the nose of our bird towards a light on the horizon that would keep us headed in the right direction, towards our home base some 90 nm away.
He had the plane swaying slightly from side to side, but I did not interfere or correct him. Now that I think about it, he may have been doing it deliberately as he learned how the ailerons and rudders work in unison. And then he said something interesting: “It’s six-degrees of freedom.”
Granted, my friend is a mechanical engineer, and in his student days he had done a project with wind tunnels and model airplanes. That was where he gained both academic and practical experience about the six-degrees of freedom in aviation.
The six degrees involve three degrees of translation, and three of rotation. In the following illustrations, aside from the three rotational axes commonly applied to aircraft, roll, pitch and yaw, the other three axes are also shown. In a ship, motion in those translational axes are called heave, sway, and surge. In an aircraft they have less colorful terms; motion fore and aft, left and right (port and starboard), and up and down. The figure to the right shows all six degrees of freedom irrespective of the craft or method of motion.
For me, the epiphany was the realization that my favorite things on earth (or slightly above it) involve six-degrees of freedom. Physically, there can be no greater freedom, and that freedom is found in flying and diving. No wonder I love them.
Birds live in that six-degree of freedom world, and perhaps that’s why we envy them. While we may not envy fish, per se, perhaps it is the six-degrees of freedom that lures so many of us to diving underwater. I well remember the first time I glided over a vertical precipice in crystal-clear water and realized with supreme pleasure that the laws of physics no longer compelled me to tumble over that precipice. Even now, quite a few years later, I still enjoy diving in the Florida Panhandle Springs, and finning directly over a rock face that drops vertically towards a sand bottom some 25 or so feet below. I’ll float over it, looking down, then bend at the waist and glide effortlessly to the bottom.
A soul floating in space prior to incarnation, an embryo floating in utero prior to implantation; these are ways we might have once had the same freedom of motion. But soon after becoming a fetus we lose that freedom. There is no where else that freedom of motion can be experienced in a sustained manner than by flying and diving.
The following video is the best example I’ve found to demonstrate the true meaning of six degrees of freedom. Go to full screen, high def, volume up, and enjoy! (Disclaimer: I have no connection to the featured company or equipment used in the making of this video.)
Children of the Middle Waters (working title) is a science fiction/thriller that has been completed and is being submitted today for consideration by Tom Doherty Associates, New York. My friend and mentor, the writer Max McCoy, has provided literary criticism and encouragement for the manuscript. Max, who works primarily in the Western genre, wrote a diving-related thriller called The Moon Pool, which happens to involve in its closing chapter the Navy Experimental Diving Unit, and someone a lot like me.
Below is a blurb briefly describing Children of the Middle Waters.
In the deep-sea canyons and trenches of the Earth lie thousands of alien spacecraft and millions of their inhabitants who have to leave soon or risk being stranded forever, or being destroyed. Due to their physiology they have been unable to directly contact humans, but they are adroit at mental contact and remote viewing, when it suits them.
They need the help of two humans to assure their safe escape, an experienced Navy scientist and a beguiling graduate student. But introductions through mental means are slow and suspect, as you might imagine.
The U.S. government is well aware of this deep sea civilization, and is desirous of the weapons the visitors possess, which puts the two unsuspecting scientists in the middle of a conflict between powerful
military forces and powerful intergalactic forces. Things could get messy.
Even worse, jealous friends turn on the unlikely duo and put their lives at risk.
Children combines two separate Native American beliefs and legends with current events. It is a complex thriller with science fact and science fiction mixed in with military action and government intrigue. Also revealed are romantic possibilities that far exceed the capabilities of the mundane, everyday world.
Early American Indian beliefs create an ending for this story that no one could anticipate. It is an ending that causes the protagonist to realize everything he has held dear is wrong, in one way or another. At the same time he discovers a reality that is the greatest blessing that man can receive.
Russian made YAKS and the Chinese variant, the Nanchang CJ-6, are growing in popularity for U.S. pilots on a budget who want to own a former military aircraft, a “war bird”.
The CJ-6 was built in China as a piston aircraft trainer. It has a radial engine, which of course adds a shot of testosterone to any pilot flying it. Radial engines just sound so much better than modern aircraft engines. When those round engines start they belch smoke and fire like the growling of a dragon clearing its throat; which in this case of a Chinese airplane is an apt analogy.
When nicely restored, it is a thing of beauty.
I was recently privileged to fly the Chinese made aircraft registered as N82792, a 1976 CJ-6A with a 285 hp Huosai-6A HS6A 9 cylinder, air cooled, radial piston engine made in Russia. Its owner and pilot is Hank (Hoot) Gibson, a former Navy Aviator. Hank handled the takeoff and landing, and graciously let me fly all parts of the flight, except for the aerobatics. The CJ-6A is a nimble craft and a joy to fly.
The specifications of the CJ-6 are similar to the Cessna Centurion 210D; they are similar in size, maximum weight, and horse power. But having flown both, I can attest that they are very different birds. The Centurion is a high speed cross country hauler, and the CJ-6 is a two seat, twisting, turning, go-to-guns combat aerobatics trainer for fighters.
The blades just behind the propeller that look like jet engine turbine blades are called gills, and open and close for temperature control of the engine during start-up, taxi and flight. The hotter the engine, the more open the gills. They are equivalent in function to cowl flaps in western aircraft.
Radial engines require a lot of care to move oil around the cylinders before start. Otherwise, oil settles in the lower cylinders leading to a hydraulic lock which bends engine parts when the engine tries to start.
The aircraft panel was confusing to me, a strange mixture of Chinese aircraft gauges placed in seemingly random pattern before the pilot. Among the instruments was the occasional English instrument, such as the airspeed indicator that read in knots instead of kilometers per hour. The artificial horizon, otherwise known as an attitude indicator was especially strange, with the normal western blue (for sky) and brown (for earth) being oriented upside down. Why it is completely the inverse of western indicators I don’t know.
Aerobatics are a lot of fun when you’re controlling the airplane. When you’re a passenger not in control, well speaking for myself, I’d say not so much.
On the first sequence of G-pulls, I became acutely aware that my stomach fat protruded a bit too far outward of my belt, and that that excess mass was trying to push itself down to my knees. Not a comfortable feeling.
I’ve pulled G’s before, but at a time when I was slimmer, and had my guts held in by a G-suit. Although I had primed myself with two Dramamine tablets, I could tell that after two sequences of various maneuvers; barrel rolls and such, that if we did anymore I’d be getting very uncomfortable indeed. I called off the aerobatics after that point, disappointing the pilot but at least sparing his aircraft.
Now, if I’d actually been performing the maneuvers myself, that would have been an entirely different matter. At least I like to think so.
Below is a video of the smoky start-up of that radial engine.
In the last video, our CJ-6 takes off. You can’t see much, but the point of the video is the sound a radial engine makes as it takes off at a relatively low RPM. Nothing else sounds like it.
It is true; sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.
At a time before virtually all light aircraft had GPS navigation and on-board weather, an instrument-rated pilot would spend lots of time studying the printed station weather reports and forecasts across his route of flight, and then, if things looked reasonably good, pilots would launch into the unknown, with fingers crossed. However, even with the best planning, a pilot can find that weather has changed dramatically in flight.
One of my most memorable flights was from Waycross, Georgia to Gainesville, FL. The flight was in N3879T, a Piper Arrow not too different from the Arrow I’m flying now. The 94 nautical mile flight would take roughly 45 minutes.
I was lucky since Waycross had a weather radar station on the field; I visited the station to study the radar screens to see what weather systems were active that Sunday afternoon. I had to be back to work on Monday, and it looked like there would be nothing to prevent that.
When I became airborne the weather was ideal; not a cloud in the sky and at least ten miles visibility. The aircraft did not have an autopilot, but I was proficient flying by instruments so I wasn’t concerned when I started entering summer puffy clouds. Eventually the clouds grew closer together, and I was spending more time in the clouds than out.
And then the rain started. Without on-board weather radar, I was very much flying blind.
Flying through rain in Florida is not unusual, but after awhile the rain became more intense, and the diffuse light in front of the airplane became darker.
When I say the rain became more intense, let me put “intense” into perspective. Most airplanes are made of thin sheets of aluminum suspended on aluminum spars. So rain hitting it sounds like banging on metal drums. The resulting din reverberated through every space in the aircraft.
Funny, I thought. None of this was showing on radar when I took off, and there was no forecast of it. Fortunately, the air was smooth, and I had no problem controlling the aircraft even in spite of seeing nothing out of the windscreen. But I did wonder at one point how the engine could deal with so much water. I don’t know if it did well because of fuel injection or not, but the engine never hiccuped.
At one point, the view out front looked menacingly dark, but off to the left side the light seemed a little brighter. Instinctively I wanted to head where it was lighter. I keyed the microphone to call Air Traffic Control (ATC) and requested a 20 degree deviation to the east, and that was approved. Unfortunately, at that time ground radar which was used to control aircraft was not as good as it is now for showing weather, in particular rainfall intensity. Thus, ATC could not offer a preferred direction for me to fly to escape the worst weather, but at least they assured me that I wouldn’t run into other aircraft. Thank-goodness for that at least.
And then it occurred to me — am I the only idiot flying in this weather?
But even after the course change, the crescendo of rain and noise became almost deafening. After a few minutes of unrelenting watery pounding of the aircraft, ATC called back, but due to the ambient noise level I had a hard time understanding them.
“Say again please?” I asked.
“How’s the ride?”
I reflected for just a moment on the important information before responding, then in as professional a tone as I could muster, “Wet but smooth.” What I felt like saying was, “It’s like freaking Niagra Falls up here!”
Considering the three words I actually said, the word “smooth” was what was critical. Severe turbulence can cause a pilot to lose control in the clouds. If you’re flying by instruments alone, and the instruments start varying wildly because the aircraft is being bounced to and fro, then it takes a very skillful pilot to maintain safe flight. Unskilled pilots have pulled the wings off their aircraft by over-controlling in responce to a turbulence-induced upset.
Nexrad image of a squall line. How bad it looks from the cockpit before entry depends on which way you’re flying – from right to left or left to right.
Then it stopped. I flew from deafening, pounding rain, into perfectly clear air. The transition occured literally in a split second. Before me lay only a few small summer cumulus clouds. Out of curiosity I looked behind me — and almost lost my cool. What I saw was a solid wall of black clouds and rain reaching from the ground to far above me. It looked like a cliff, like the smooth edge of a giant black skyscraper, except it was one that stretched in a perfect line from as far as I could see to the east and west.
It was a frightening looking squall line, and had I been flying in the opposite direction there was no way I would have penetrated that wall of certain death. But approaching it from the benign-looking side of the squall line, lulled by innocent looking summer clouds, I had stumbled unawares into a potentially lethal trap.
But somehow it had not claimed me; it had been smooth during the entire flight. I had encountered no hail, no lightning, and no severe up and down drafts. Assuredly, the odds against that outcome were extremely small. Had I not made a 20° turn toward the light, so to speak, the outcome might have been much different. Of course I’ll never know for sure what would have happened, but the statistics say it would not have turned out well. I was lucky.
Yes, I’ll take good luck any day, but as the title of this post suggests, it may have been much more than luck that directed me safely to the other side of the squall line. I had, after all, been praying.
I was securely strapped into one of the world’s largest human centrifuges at the Naval Air Development Center (NADC) Warminster, Pennsylvania, jocked-down like a pilot in a high performance fighter. As the gondola started moving, I felt the pneumatic cushions in my G-suit inflate, squeezing my legs and abdomen, helping to prevent blood from pooling. Excess pooling would cause a decrease in the volume of blood being pumped to my brain, potentially resulting in unconsciousness. That type of blackout is called G-LOC, or G-induced loss of consciousness.
G is the term for the acceleration of gravity, about 9.8 m/s2. I was being exposed to a relatively mild but prolonged 3-Gs. To put that acceleration into perspective, the shuttle astronauts are exposed to no more than 3-Gs near the end of their climb to orbit, and briefly during reentry. The Apollo astronauts headed to the moon were limited to a maximum of 4 Gs, again during only a brief period of time.
But my three-G exposure was not brief. If I had been launched upwards with a 3-G acceleration for three minutes I would have been travelling at almost 12,000 miles per hour at the end of those 3-minutes, over mach 15, and would have climbed 296 miles, well above the altitude of the International Space Station. It would have been a sight to behold.
Another 3 and a half minutes and I would have been going fast enough to escape Earth’s gravity.
Alas, in reality I wasn’t going anywhere, except in circles around the inside of the centrifuge room, attached to a 4000 hp electric motor by a 50-foot long arm.
During the run I experienced about what I’d expected — I felt heavy, very heavy, like 3 times my body weight heavy. But I was not at all expecting the sensation I got when they put on the brakes. I felt like a bowling ball careening down a bowling lane. I felt like a gymnast doing impossibly fast forward somersaults.
It was not pleasant.
And I’m very glad the photographer took a photo before the run, rather than after.
I was at Warminster to study the stresses imposed on F/A-18 fighter pilots during high-G exposures. In the 1990s, losses of aircraft and pilots were an all too frequent occurrence during high-speed maneuvering flight due to G-LOC. To prevent G-LOC pilots need to perform, with precision, an anti-G straining manuever, even though they wear the same anti-G suit I was wearing.
To understand the fighter pilots’ problems, anti G-suits provide at most 1-1.5 G protection advantage. and most people lose consciousness above 3-5 Gs without a G-suit. But a fighter like the F/A-18 can easily pull 8-9 Gs during close in combat. That is where the anti-G straining manuever comes in. The pilots grunt and strain, contracting their leg and abdominal muscles during the high-G portion of the pull, forcing blood from their abdomen into their chest cavity, making blood available for the heart and brain.
The NADC centrifuge had been used to train the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts. Quoting from the Air & Space Smithsonian magazine, “John Glenn called it a “dreaded” and “sadistic” part of astronaut training. Apollo 11’s Michael Collins called it “diabolical.” Time magazine referred to it as “a monstrous apparatus,” a “gruesome merry-go-round,” and, less originally, a “torture chamber.”
Compared to the centrifuge ride, a flight to the moon was a cake-walk, except for Apollo 13 of course.
The NADC centrifuge was closed by the BRAC committee in 1996. The Navy Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in Pensacola FL also has a centrifuge in which I’ve ridden, but NAMRL is closing as well, in September 2011.
It seems like military man-rated centrifuges aren’t as popular as they used to be.
Fortunately, NASA has a modern centrifuge, although its maximum G-force capability is about half that of the NADC centrifuge. Nevertheless, anyone who has ridden a centrifuge will tell you the 20-G capability of the NASA Ames centrifuge is more than enough to test human endurance to the forces of acceleration.
There are times when flying family members and myself, medical patients, or colleagues from work, that an aircraft is little more than conveniently fast transportation; a time machine.
Then there are other times, like this weekend, when flying is almost a religious experience.
Friday night I flew to an east coast city to pick up my aviator son who had been deprived of aviation for quite some time. Since it was late, the only air traffic was me, “a little guy” as a paternalistic air traffic controller referred to me, and the commercial jet pilots headed to Savannah, Jacksonville and Orlando. The controller was asking Delta pilots if the weather ahead was likely to be a significant issue for me. They replied it wouldn’t be, and indeed it wasn’t.
I truly appreciated the thoughtfulness of the controller, and the assistance of the Delta pilots. Professional pilots and controllers are good people.
After I followed the flashing approach lights to the active runway at Cecil Field, I found my son waiting for me, eager to get airborne for the return trip. However, storms had closed in behind me, and we had to wait until morning for the flight back. What a good decision that was.
We arrived at the Fixed Base Operation (FBO) when they opened at seven, east coast time. There were high clouds and light breezes that kept the temperatures on the asphalt parking ramp pleasantly cool, something I had not experienced in summertime Florida for over a month. I was quite comfortable following my son around as he preflighted the plane with his usual thoroughness.
Soon we were climbing to 8000 feet, heading west under the watchful eyes of Jacksonville Center. The sun was behind us but we couldn’t see it because of the high cloud cover. At cruise altitude the air was chilly, and I was closing vents to remain comfortable. That was, once again, something I had not done for quite a while, even at 8000 feet.
About the time we were approaching Tallahassee, the high cloud cover started thinning, and ahead we could see brilliant blue sky. And then west of Tallahassee, 60 miles out from our destination, we received a treat that would excite us for the rest of the weekend. Layers of clouds loosely surrounded us, giving the air character and texture. And the air itself had a transparency we seldom see in the Southeast. We could see our destination airport from 55 miles out, and could see hotels and condominiums on the distant coast 100 miles away spotlighted by bright morning sunshine.
An airline passenger at 36,000 feet does not get the same visual experience as a general aviation pilot and his passengers at 5000 to 10,000 feet. The difference is like being in the audience for a concert, versus being in the middle of the orchestra. Being in the orchestra, or in the small cockpit, is an immersion experience. We were witness to a wide variety of cloud structures, with dynamic shapes and colors, below us, at our altitude, and even far above it, with mares tails reaching above the realm of the commercial jetliners.
With the sun behind us there was no impediment to our vision. It felt, in fact, as if we had supernatural vision, hard at work taking in all the beauty, both natural and man-made, that was laid out before us.
As we were nearing our destination I was almost sad having to leave our lofty vantage point one and a half miles up. But even the most awe-inspiring spiritual experience is short-lived, and we had just enjoyed one of those magical moments that only aviators can experience; albeit briefly. Perhaps it is its brevity, and rarity, that makes it such a memorable experience.
The recognition that my son and I had shared something very special and beautiful, put a smile on our faces, and a glow in our hearts, for the entire weekend.
No, I’m not talking about the chord of aircraft wings and some etymological, coincidental semblance to musical chords.
No, the problem is much more serious.
You see, I’m a woodwind player, a clarinetist to be exact, and like brass players, I can’t play chords.
A chord is a musical element with more than one note played at a time. In fact, my most loved musical elements are chords. They can be beautiful, or powerful, but I can’t play them.
Music for Bb clarinet.
With my instrument, I’m stuck with playing one note at a time. And due to years of training to do that one function well, my brain will not allow me to diversify. I can only read and interpret one note at a time. If I was to write a simple chord for woodwinds, I’d have to hire three musicians to play it. But give a chord to a pianist, or guitarist, and they’re quite at home.
I can in fact play a wide variety of chords on a piano, organ, or guitar, and I have often done just that. And of course I can read the keyboard notes. I just can’t read them and play at the same time. My brain’s not wired to do that.
Music for pipe organ
I’ve watched my wife play organ chords on the treble cleft, bass cleft, and pedals. That is, both hands and feet are playing, at the same time!
How does she do that?
If I’d started playing piano at the same time I’d started playing the clarinet, 3rd grade, I’d have no problem. My brain would have wired itself to, as we are fond of saying, multitask. I suppose if I’d started reading two or three books at the same time, in my early childhood, I could do that now. But I didn’t, and so I can’t.
So you see where the chord envy comes from?
But the other day I had an epiphany. Right out of high school I started flying very simple aircraft; a Piper 140 and a Cessna 150. In some sense they’re like the clarinet. But a long time ago I transitioned to so-called complex aircraft; Bonanza’s, Mooney’s and my beloved Arrows. They’re sort of like pianos, in complexity.
And then came the instrument rating – complexity added to complexity, and with it, a heavy responsibility. The combination of complex aircraft and instrument rating is in some ways like an organ – lots of button, pedal and key pushing, all at the right time, and in harmony with the air traffic control system.
An aircraft instrument trainee (gee, there’s another musical parallel) works hard to develop a scan of the instruments to maintain situational awareness and control the aircraft without outside visual reference. It’s tough in the beginning.
But now, with experience, I don’t even think of a scan. I simply take in the entire panel, with all its separate instruments and subconsciously perform the required control inputs to keep the aircraft headed in the correct direction, right-side up.
My epiphany is, that is exactly what a keyboardist does when they are playing six or more notes at the same time. I can’t play musical chords, but my brain has wired itself with repetitive practice to do essentially the same thing with my aircraft.
So now, when I push in the throttle and start the takeoff roll in my Arrow, it’s like the beginning of the Fan Fare for Also Sprach Zarathustra. The engine powers up from idle (middle C, 261 Hz, C4) to higher RPM’s (G4, 392 Hz) and then full power (C5, 523 Hz). And as my bird lifts into the sky, that famous two chord sequence strikes at an even higher pitch (C major and a sixteenth note later, C minor.)
[Want to know how the frequencies of those notes roughly relate to engine RPM? Multiply by 4.]
As the chord begins dying away I’m simultaneously pulling up the gear, turning as directed, watching the engine instruments, and heading off into the skies with the reassuring droning note of the engine vibrating through our bodies. It’s that same note that reprises the quiet beginning of Strauss’s ASZ.
I can do it! No more chord envy.
As you already know, the same principle, complexity mastered through training, applies to any complex endeavor where situational awareness is vital, be it soccer field or battlefield.
[Update, I don’t know that musicians necessarily make better pilots, or vice versa, but at least they have their own association (Flying Musicians Association) and web site: http://flyingmusicians.org/]
It’s a combination of Elephant Graveyard and Hotel California, this airport in Nortwestern Mississippi, not far from the Mississippi River. Big jets fly into the small town airport, but never leave.
I stumbled across the curious goings on at the Greenwood LeFlore Airport during a refueling stop on my way to the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. Planes which have met their structural or economic lifespan are euthanized, and dissected, after having made their last flight. They are “parted out”, which means useful parts that can be sold, are sold. Presumably the rest goes to scrap.
The facility in Greenwood Leflore is owned by GE, one of the largest manufacturers of turbofan engines. For obvious reasons, the engines are the first to be removed from the planes. But almost anything else with life left in it will be salvaged, and likely used in other aircraft.
So why would a plane be scrapped with useful components left in it?
Remember Aloha Airlines Flight 243, a 737 that at altitude lost a large portion of its cabin top due to metal fatigue? Far better to scrap a plane before that happens, than after.
Recently, a Southwest 737 had a hole blown in its roof due to metal fatigue accumulation after only 39,000 pressurization cycles. That’s a relatively low number compared to what the industry expects.
But let’s put that into perspective. Every morning we wake up, get pressurized, perhaps with a cup or two of Joe, and strike off for our daily chores. And in the evening we depressurize, then sleep, before starting the cycle over. After 39,000 of those cycles, we’d be about 107 years old.
Well, sure, if we made it that far, I imagine major things would be wearing out.
The funny thing is, aircraft get junked when they are no longer economically repairable.
On race day during my freshman year at Georgia Tech, a pilot friend of mine offered to take me flying if I helped pay for gas. He rented a Cessna 150 at the Fulton County Airport not far from downtown Atlanta. I had time in a Cessna 140, a tail dragger version of the 150, but had never flown a 150 before, so I sat in the right seat.
A short 30 mile flight later we were on top of the Atlanta International Raceway (now the much faster sounding Atlanta Motor Speedway) just as the Atlanta 500 race was starting. Once there, the pilot decided to let me fly. I, like any normal young male very full of himself, decided we should race the cars. And so we did.
Other planes started arriving, but we were the first ones there, and so the rest had to orbit further away from the track, while we had the prime spot for the race action – directly over the track.
Although the two-seat Cessna had a cruise speed of only 123 mph, it had a Vne, never exceed speed, of 162 mph, and I found that by putting the plane’s nose down on the straightaway, I could safely race the cars at 150 mph, which pretty well allowed me to keep up with them. On the turn I threw the wing over and maintained position over the track. After the 180° turn, I’d climb back up so I’d have altitude to speed down the track on the next straightaway.
We did several turns like that before deciding it was time to fly off for more adventure.
And to think, I wasn’t even a pilot yet!
(Disclaimer: It you pulled that stunt today you’d be escorted away by a pair of F-16s, have the plane impounded, and lose your license – forever! So don’t even think about it.)
Photo taken by Pax River Naval Airstation Photography Department. Click for larger image.
Did some pilot take the word “Landing” in Landing Craft, just a little too seriously?
Well, not exactly. But the story behind this photo made it into Flying Magazine, as you see below in the “Ship to shore” piece.
Now here’s the rest of the story.
It was February 1975, and I was an active duty First Lieutenant in the Army stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. I had flown our 2-seater Cessna 150 from Southwest Georgia (Thomasville) up to Aberdeen, MD in January. After a 734 mile (each way) flight home for the weekend of February 8-10, I could not resist flying myself and another Lieutenant back home for Valentines Day (Feb.14) since the following Monday was a Federal Holiday, President’s Day. The fact that my wife and I were trying to start a family made a Valentines trip all that more appealing.
My aircraft was a 1962 Cessna 150B, the fastest stock version of the 150 with a reputed 109 knot (125 mph) cruise speed. Therefore, the round trips were challenging but doable for a 232 hour pilot with 10 hours of instrument training.
All was well until the return flight on the 17th. The weather briefers claimed that a front was moving from west to east across my path of flight, but as slow moving as I was I should be flying up the backside of the front, in the clear, as I made my way up north. Naively, I put too much faith in their forecast. It was what I wanted to hear.
After picking up my friend at Peachtree DeKalb Airport, outside Atlanta, we set off on the long leg back to base. On refueling and reassessing the weather in North Carolina, things were looking bleak. The front had stalled, and was not moving through as projected. It appeared that some “scud running” would be required, at least for a while, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk it. But then again, we really wanted to get back to the Army base. The Army would not be happy if we didn’t show up the next morning.
A more experienced pilot I had been talking to at the air field in North Carolina took-off with the intention of following roads. Well, if that was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. We departed again, and were soon flying just below the clouds over endless farm land, far from towers or anything else that could reach up and smite us.
Except for the flock of Canadian geese doing the same thing.
I’m not sure who was more surprised as we came together out of the mist at well over a hundred miles an hour, them or us, but thanks to quick reactions and animal instincts we all survived the encounter without so much as a feather lost. It was then that I decided to climb on top of the clouds at the first available opening, just to see what I was facing.
It was gorgeous on top of the cloud layer, with bright sunshine and endless visibility, and white clouds stretching from horizon to horizon. I was flying “VFR on top”, and with the added altitude my single VOR navigation radio was able to pinpoint my location at all times. I no longer needed to follow roads. The only problem was, getting down, eventually.
As we motored on, I developed a plan. I had already intended to fly east of Washington D.C. , over the Chesapeake Bay, before heading straight for Aberdeen, MD, north of Baltimore. But now the plan was to navigate above the clouds to the center of the bay, and hope for the best, staying just north of the airspace around Paxtuxent River Naval Air Station (PAX River). If things didn’t look good for the run up the bay, I’d land at St. Mary’s County Airport in Leonardtown , MD.
When our navigation radio said we were directly over the Bay, a hole opened up large enough for us to spiral down towards the water. But once under the clouds I realized I had little choice except to land at St. Mary’s airport (2W6), which, according to the chart, was only about a mile from our location. The option of scud running up the Chesapeake would have vanished about the time I reached the Chesapeake Bay Bridges. Flying under them would not only have been illegal, it would have been stupid.
The only problem was, St. Mary’s County Airport was not where the chart said it would be.
As I searched vainly for the airport the clouds were lowering as evening was approaching and air temperature was dropping. I was now getting concerned enough that I flew low over a farmer’s field checking for suitability for a precautionary landing. The only thing my passenger said, was “What are you doing?”
Well, my passenger was not too keen on what I had in mind, so unwisely I gave up that opportunity and crossed to the east side of the bay continuing to search for the airport. Soon I realized it was not there either, and started a 180° turn back to the west.
Unless a pilot is extremely careful, he can lose some altitude during a large turn. During my turn I lost 50 feet, which is not bad, except for the fact that I’d started the turn about 100 feet above the water. That dip towards the water definately got my passenger’s attention, and I think from then on he was willing to accept whatever method of safely landing that I could manage.
Once I was headed west across the bay again, I found the clouds had dropped to the top of the Calvert Cliffs. The option of putting N1144Y down in a field on top of the cliffs was now gone.
I was now committed to landing on a beach that would hopefully be flat enough and wide enough for my plane, whether my passenger liked it or not. If only I could find one. Then, almost miraculously, 4000 feet of suitable landing room appeared just north of Cove Point. I took it as an invitation to end part 1 of the saga.
In my excitement during manuevering for landing, I forgot to lower my aircraft’s flaps, which meant I approached the beach faster than intended, and my roll out was longer than it should have been. Just before rolling to a stop the front wheel hit a one or two inch berm in the sand, which sent the plane rotating up onto its propeller spinner, tail high in the air. In the cockpit we were staring down at the sand, which seemed strange, but at least we were stopped, and none the worse for wear.
We hopped out of the plane, and pulled the tail back down level, so it didn’t look so much like a plane crash. Just then, we saw a squad of men running up the beach with stretchers, thinking there had indeed been a plane crash. The report of a crash had been radioed in by men on a boat who witnessed the approach and landing from out in the increasingly foggy bay.
After the initial excitement died down, we were invited to spend the night in a Coast Guard Station, on whose property we were now trespassing. But since we were both Army officers, we were treated like fellow brothers in arms.
It was my intention to take off again the next day. The beach was firmly packed sand, a very decent soft field, and after all, we pilots practiced soft, short field takeoffs and landings. But we got word that the FAA was planning to visit the site to “approve” the take-off location. Unfortunately, it took a couple of days for the FAA to arrive due to, as they said, a number of plane crashes that foggy day. So I guess I’d been lucky to find a suitable location for a precautionary landing.
But getting off proved to be a challenge since by the time the FAA arrived the beach had dried and become too soft. They would not approve my takeoff.
Two plans presented themselves. One, a team of mechanics would descend on the beach and disassemble the plane like ants carving up the carcass of a downed dragon fly, carrying off the pieces. Or sailors from the nearby Paxtuxent River Airstation would put a sling around my still airworthy bird and a large helicopter would hoist it into the air, depositing it on the Pax River runway not too far distant.
That latter plan was dashed when I called Cessna Aircraft and asked their advice about stresses that might be placed on the airframe by a hoisting operation. “Don’t know,” they admitted. “But tell us how it comes out.”
That was not what I was hoping to hear.
The final plan was pieced together by Navy base personnel who were accustomed to using Landing Craft to recover the remains of crashed test aircraft. And my little bird sort of fit that description. They called it a training exercise.
One morning early I was guarding the aircraft when I saw the LCM get as close in as it could to the beach, and then a bunch of sailors charged out of the open front ramp of the LCM like Marines at Guadalcanal. Strong hands and arms then pushed the plane backwards down the beach, and then up into the open bay of the craft.
The nose wheel rested on the downward sloping ramp, which would have placed the wheel in saltwater as we slowly motored across the Bay towards Pax River Air Station. That problem was solved when I gently sat on the tail section (the horizontal stabilizer) to raise the nose wheel out of the water.
Luck was with us as the water that morning was glassy smooth as we motored the approximately 6 miles or so to the Navy airfield. The LCM nudged up to an old sea plane ramp, and myself and several sailors pushed the Cessna up the ramp to a flat portion of the Pax River runway. From there, I taxied the plane to a maintenance hangar where we spent most of the night going over the engine and airframe with a Pax River flying club mechanic to make sure the aircraft was still airworthy.
The next morning I took off from the longest runway I had ever seen, flew a salute around the Coast Guard Station that had been so accommodating, then flew on up the Chesapeake Bay to the air field at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
I could never, in a single lifetime, repay my debt to both the Coast Guard and the Navy for their assistance on one long flight gone wrong on a cold February day. If you are one of them, reading this now, know that I am eternally grateful. You are one of the reasons I’ve spent my professional career working for the Navy.
And the FAA? When I reported that I was attempting to locate an airport that was incorrectly charted, I never heard from them again. Fortunately, airport or not, I was able to make a good decision before I ran completely out of options. A precautionary landing beats a crash any day.
Three years later I completed my instrument rating so I would never again have to repeat such a potentially dangerous experience.
The following photo shows 1144Y with a fresh coat of paint, and with a baby boy born nine months after that Valentine’s day flight.
OK, I admit it. I’m in love with an inanimate object.
But if you could see her, you’d understand. In fact you might feel the same way.
Sometimes I even wonder, if she really is inanimate? So what if she’s forty years old. So what if she’s high maintenance? So what if her paint is not as fresh as it once was?
Where else could I find a thoroughbred steed that can take me and my family whizzing across country at 160 mph, above the clouds and haze of summer, through mild or threatening weather, day or night, eating up the miles like a horse on speed.
Her heart is 200 horsepower of whirring, fuel-injected cylinders. When given her lead, her three-bladed propeller slices through the air turning it into powerful thrust, like the magic machine she is. Her graceful wings vault her into the air, reaching for heaven, and finding quiet solace two miles high.
To understand her best is to realize she’s more than a magic machine; she is veritably a time machine, leaping us across country on a time schedule simply unimaginable any other way.
And the sights from her cockpit are unmatched by any artist, especially when a mixture of stormy and clearing weather paints a palette of color and texture that exceeds the human capacity to absorb, visually.
What is left is raw emotion.
She may be inanimate, but riding her is like clinging to the back of an angel. What’s not to love?
An undercast, seen from 9000 feet
In 1971 Harry Nilsson wrote a song I’ve always loved, and now I can claim it as my own. At least I imagine it that way.
Me and my Arrow
Straighter than narrow
Wherever we go, every one knows
It’s me and my Arrow
Me and my Arrow
Taking the high road
Wherever we go, everyone knows
It’s me and my Arrow
Here is how it sounds, from Harry Nilsson himself.
Sometimes weather makes for an altogether bad flying day.
The luxurious turboprop was speeding through turbulent skies, using its radar to pick its way around southern thunderstorms, en route to a quail hunting plantation just across the Georgia-Florida border. The craft had left Cleveland with my wife and one-year old son on board. Occasionally the plane was jolted so hard my wife feared her head would strike the ceiling of the spacious cabin. I, remaining in Cleveland, was praying for their safe arrival in Florida.
I had met the King Air pilot, David Ingalls, at the airport in Thomasville, Georgia a couple of months previously when he landed to refuel before flying back to Cleveland. He was returning from one of his frequent bird hunting trips to his antebellum plantations (yes, plural is correct. He owned two.) My wife and I frequented the Thomasville airport because we had our two-seater Cessna 150 hangared there while I was in graduate school at Florida State University. In 1976 I was finishing my Ph.D. and was about to move to Cleveland, Ohio to work as a research Associate in Biophysics at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.
The airport manager, knowing we were about to move up north, suggested I talk to the King Air owner because Ingalls lived in Cleveland. Apparently he was supposed to have owned part of Pan American Airlines, and had served as an aviator in World War I. That explained why he looked to be in his mid-seventies at the time, albeit a virile, well-preserved seventies.
I approached the pilot as he was inspecting his aircraft, and mentioned that we were moving to Cleveland, and before I knew it he had invited my wife to fly back to Florida with him anytime she wanted. He explained that he made frequent hunting trips with his business associates, and he usually had a couple of empty seats on board the aircraft. My wife had been thrilled at the offer.
At the moment however, my wife was having second thoughts about the trip as the turbulence seemed to be shaking the plane apart. But eventually the storms gave way to smoother air as the aircraft sped towards the Florida border. Unfortunately, the foul weather was soon replaced by low-lying fog which covered their intended landing site, the grass strip at one of his plantations.
As the aircraft descended into the murk, searching for the runway, my wife started praying. She had seen no sign of land through the thick clouds, and she knew they were far from any regular airport. As the time on the approach counted down she finally caught sight of the pine tree tops just beneath the plane’s wheels. Other than someone calling “pull up, pull up” just at the end, the landing was smooth; but baby boy wasn’t the only one with a wet diaper that day, figuratively speaking.
Ten years later when I was working for the Navy diving community in the Washington D.C. area (Bethesda, MD actually), I came across his obituary in the Washington Post. I never read obituaries, but by some great coincidence, I saw his. As I read, I saw he was the REAL DEAL.
Not until many years later did I find out more about David Ingalls. We were in Panama City where I was still working for Navy diving, eating lunch with my family at an aviation-themed restaurant, and on the wall next to our booth was a print of a British plane shooting down a German fighter. It was a lucky shot we were told, but it placed a very young Ingalls in the history books as the U.S. Navy’s only WWI fighter ace. He was nineteen years old.
While later visiting the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL we saw a plaque commemorating LTjg Ingalls. Well, we began to realize that the King Air pilot had not only been the real deal, he had been a very BIG deal; and yet he had remained entirely humble and personable.
David Ingalls, born in 1899, was a grandnephew of President Taft, and by 1929 had become the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Aeronautics, a personal friend of President Hoover. He served throughout the Second World War, and retired with the rank of Rear Admiral. And he was indeed a Director for Pan Am World Airways.
As they say, weather is no respecter of persons. But that day, the airplane and its passengers arrived safely, due no doubt to the sophisticated electronics in that aircraft and the consumate skill of the pilot. Admiral Ingalls lived another 10 years, and that baby boy is now a Navy Flight Surgeon.