The Sojourner’s Dilemma; You Have to Go Home Sometime

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.

Mt. McKinley, or Denali.

Mountain climbers who reach the top of their mountain, don’t always make it safely back down. Astronauts reentering the atmosphere understand the risk of return all too well.

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.

Snapshot gear light
Gear lights: one light is not glowing.

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.

The offending nose gear.

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.


Going to HEVVN

I know where HEVVN is. I have coordinates for it.

I’m serious.

“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.



HEVVN intersection lies in the center of the blue donut. Click for a larger image.

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:


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.

After all, Tweety Bird can fly. Right?