A Flight to DeFuniak Springs

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.

Killer Optical Illusions — Size Does Matter

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.

A simulated black hole approach to a runway. Orbiter imagery from Guleit.com

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.)

A depiction of a black hole feeding on stars and gas.

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.


Six-Degrees of Freedom

Photo credit Paul Burger, Houston

I’ve had an epiphany of sorts.

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.

Image credit: Horia Ionescu, Wikipedia Commons

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.

Illustration by S. W. Halpern


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.

This is the stuff of flying dreams, of which I am also enamored.

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.

Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jayme Pastoric


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

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.


Red Star Over Jacksonville

Chinese aircraft are invading — sort of.

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.


Yea, Though I Fly Through the Valley of Death…

Photo credit: Bob Hammitt

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.






Going Nowhere Fast – Military Aviation Centrifuges

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.

The author at NADC

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.

Author going for a spin

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.

From the cockpit of an F-18

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.

Astronaut Alan Shepard

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.

Click for a larger image.

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.

Ecstacy in Flight

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.

8000 feet going home. Click for larger image.

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.

How Musicians and Pilots Are Alike – It’s in the Chords

I’ve suffered from chord envy for years.

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/]

Where Big Jets Go to Die

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.

(click for a larger image) In the satellite image of KGWO airport, over 20 passenger or cargo jets are visible on the ramp or the dirt.

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.

I wonder if that could happen to us?

No, surely not.

Could it?

left to right: Frontier Airlines, U.S. Airways, American Airlines variant?