Thursday, February 14, 2019

The way it is.

Slowly, and somewhat against my will, the integration back into the world of land dwellers continues. I am starting to drive a little faster. The highway part of the route to and from the shop works best when big parts of it get done in the left lane. Two of the off ramps used are left exits, with one of those dumping me off into the left lane of another highway. From there it is about 1/2 mile to get across four lanes of traffic to a right exit. When in the left lane, it seems best to try and keep up, but ten over is about as fast as I care to go. It’s usually enough, particularly when the schedule has me making the trip around rush hour. Non-rush hour traffic is light enough that leaving the lane switch to the last minute isn’t a problem. On those days,speeds in the fast lane run 20/25 over…and more. Best to leave that bit of concrete to those in a real hurry to get to their next accident.

The drive through town to the highway has its own displays of land dweller foolishness. I don’t understand those who just blow through red lights without even slowing, something witnessed on an average of once a day. I can’t get my head around the idea of someone thinking that they are so important that traffic laws simply don’t apply to them. I sometime wonder if they think the laws of reaction times, momentum, braking traction, and impact “g” forces, don’t apply to them either. Then again, thinking isn’t likely one of their strong suits. Such drivers are, admittedly, a minority. Maybe Darwin keeps them from multiplying too rapidly.

Unsurprisingly, the job is helping ease the transition. In the aviation world, the people not big on thinking don’t get very far or last very long. (Darwin rules again.) Being among the tribe of hard-core, professional aviators helps take some of the sting out of not being among the tribe of cruisers. The job, now, is to sit through the exact same class/cockpit trainer/sim sessions as completed barely a week ago. Observing is the task at hand, concentrating more on how the material is taught rather than what is being taught. There is still a lot of learning going on. Knowing enough to pass the check rides and exams is not near to knowing enough to teach.

Mike, the instructor this past week, is the fourth I have worked with since hiring on. The first three got me – six years away from a flight deck – past an FAA type ride in the Legacy fly-by-wire-gee-whiz wonder bird, in three weeks. A pretty good demonstration of just how good they are at what they do. Watching Mike, with an eye toward working the classroom gee-whiz wonders and watching how he interacts with the group did (as I fully expected) highlight just how challenging – and fun – this is going to be. And there are still two areas of instruction, the cockpit trainer and the actual simulator, to be mastered.

Another help in taking the sting away from being off the boat comes from spending time with the pilots being trained. The current class includes pilots from Mexico, France, Germany (who was born in Brazil), and the US. One of the American pilots was a contract guy who has flown pretty much everywhere there is to fly, including Russia and China. This group of seven pilots is, collectively, fluent in at least 6 languages. They are very much the kind of people we routinely met while traveling on Kintala: adventuresome, capable, friendly, smart, and at ease with other cultures and ideas. It is just flat-out fun to be around them, listen to their stories, and work with them as they get a handle on this new bird.

It all helps.

The crew of Blown’ In the Wind is spending a few days on the dock where Kintala is sitting with the broker. They say it is strange to see her there without Deb and I nearby. It is even stranger having them “out there” while heading off to work each day. I try not to think of it too often; the job, Daughters (Two), and the grandkid gang of 7 are all good reasons to have taken this path. But sometimes the nights pass slow, with the lights of the city and the noise of the adjoining apartments rubbing raw against the nights of silence and darkness riding to the anchor off some uninhabited cay. At other times a thought or memory will sneak up and freeze my world for just a moment, right in the middle of the day. Those usually pass quickly, though the ghost of a hurt may linger for a while. Some of the people I love, and a world I miss, are very far away. And that’s just the way it is going to be for a while.




Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Just another ride?


One thing that seemed a pretty sure bet when we left land and moved onto a boat, was that there would be no more check rides in the future, let alone two check rides in five days. It would have been a bad bet to take.


Photo courtesy of AOPA.com

The first was Monday’s “easy” ride, the one to check the box required by the European authorities. That one was done with my new friend from Germany and was actually two, two-hour rides. Michael took the left (Captain’s) seat for the first ride with me on the right. Then we switched for the second ride. Like most jets, and in spite of all the high tech gee-wizardry that is supposed to make this one “easy” to fly, it is a two pilot airplane. When things start to go wonky, with warning lights flashing and aural alerts filling the flight deck, they can be two very busy people, with each person’s hands being filled with different tasks. The nice thing about European (EASA) rides is that they are not “jeopardy” events. One can’t really fail the ride. If a maneuver isn’t performed up to standard the crew simply does it again, learns from whatever mistake it was that they made, and moves on. There is always the possibility that someone will come along who simply can’t figure out how to do it right, but that is a pretty rare event at this level of aviation. These are not teenaged kids working toward their first solo flight in a single engine piston banger.

Another good thing about EASA rides is they focus on crew coordination and decision making, using the aircraft's capabilities to minimize risk. When things start to go wrong, the crew is expected to reduce the risks involved as much as possible. Checking destination weather, finding alternate airports, requesting priority handling to simplify the approach procedure as much as possible, are all expected to be part of the crew’s actions. Of course things still go wrong on an EASA check ride. Though there is a good chance that a pilot starting out today will never see a honest to goodness flashing red light in an actual cockpit, you have to practice something.

The second ride, the FAA sanctioned ride, was Friday. The FAA is the last aviation entity on the planet to still insist on “jeopardy” rides. Lose too much airspeed during one kind of maneuver, gain or lose too much altitude during another maneuver, and the examiner is required to terminate the ride, no second chances. The applicant is sent home with a “pink slip” and a notice goes in the federal records of a failed attempt to get a new rating. They can’t take away your birthday or anything, and a second ride can be scheduled after a certain amount of retraining is logged. The bitch with this approach is that anyone can have a bad day, and a ride can be “busted” even if the outcome of the flight was never in doubt. (You can read that as meaning it didn’t get near to crashing and no one was going to get hurt.)

During this check ride, one gets to demonstrate all kinds of skills that will never be called upon again. Steep turns in an airplane deliberately designed to correct any roll attitude greater than 33 degrees is one. The required 45 degree angle can be commanded, but one is literally fighting the airplane’s flight management system the entire time. Oh, and don’t gain or lose about a wing’s span worth of altitude while doing so, even if the ground is 10,000 feet away. Do so and the ride is a bust, come back another day to try again.

The same can be said for performing aerodynamic stalls, when the wing quits flying from too low an airspeed. Millions upon millions of dollars were spent when designing this aircraft to ensure that it could not be stalled. So, during an FAA check ride, some (not all) of the multiple layers of protection are switched off. Then the pilot can provoke a stall warning (not an actual stall) in order to demonstrate the “skill” of recovering from something that hasn’t actually happened yet. It is a bit like chopping off a foot to demonstrate the skill of hopping around on one leg.

After doing things in the airplane that the airplane was designed not to do, one gets to demonstrate the ability to handle multiple, cascading failures by making the poorest possible risk management decisions. No pilot I know would ever, with an engine shut down (OEI), press on to an airport where the weather was at minimums for making the approach. Nor would any airport I have ever flown to allow a piece of equipment to blunder onto a runway in front of an emergency aircraft, thus provoking a single engine low altitude (barely 50 feet in the air, less than the length of the aircraft) abort and missed approach. But an FAA check ride requires pretend stupid topped with a dash of silly. After the abort, the sky will miraculously clear and turn into day for the next landing, but the flaps will fail. A OEI / no flaps landing is like tip-toeing through a mine field. One faltering step will have the airplane careening through the grass on the side of the runway. (A sure way to bust any kind of check ride is to crash, even if it is a Sim.)

A saying that floats around the aviation world goes something like this, “It is best to exercise superior judgment and avoid demonstrating superior skills.” On the FAA ride we do just the opposite. The good news is that the Legacy 500 is such an overpowered little brute that it barely notices that an engine has packed it in for the day. So, what it taketh away in cooperating with steep turns, it giveth back when jumping over a wayward dump truck. The no flap, OEI landing? Just take it easy with the single thrust reverser, don’t pounce on the brakes with too much enthusiasm, and all should be well. (That is, by the way, just the highlights of the things that go wrong on this two hour check ride.)

For me the ride mostly demonstrated that it takes more than a few weeks to scrape off 6 years worth of salt water accumulated rust. Still, it went okay. The Check Airman was fair in his assessment of the things I could have done better and, to a large extent, all involved are well aware that check rides have little to do with actually using the airplane to move around the country day after day. I would have been quite comfortable to walk out of the sim, climb up into an actual Legacy, and head off somewhere; the Check Airman would have put his family on board behind me. When it comes right down to it, that is every Check Airman's actual pass/fail criteria. And it is the best one I can think of.

After the “official” ride was over, we had a good discussion of how I, as a flight instructor, can help him do his job as a Pilot Examiner. The people he checks will soon include people I have helped train. We are on the same side when it comes to getting them ready for both the check ride and the real world. Sometimes that is a delicate balancing act between two contradictory sets of standards.

With the rides over, and a new type rating in my pocket, the heat is off a bit. I am past the point where the job could still have gone very wrong, leaving us with few options for getting back to a boat someday. I have been “at the shop” pretty much every day since training started three weeks ago. When not working the GFS I was at home pouring over manuals, procedures, and test questions, often far into the night. Though not the FAA’s doing, to me this check ride carried more potential “jeopardy” than any other I have taken.

It will be good to get back to a more normal schedule. I am really looking forward to concentrating on getting to the front of a classroom, rather than to the front seat of the airplane. After all, they hired me to teach, not to fly. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Hoops and boxes

Training goes on. Sometimes it is kind of fun. Sometimes it is enormously frustrating. Note to self, don’t take nearly six years off from doing something complex, then expect to go back to it without any kind of drama. The salt water rust on what were more than adequate aviation skills is embarrassing. The good news is that one need not be an expert pilot to teach other expert pilots how to make friends with a new piece of equipment. The regulations require that one carry a type rating to teach but the goal isn't to fly the thing out on the line, it is to help those who do to keep sharp.

It is a bit like being a riding coach for a MotoGP racer. All the coaches are ex-racers themselves, though not all of them are past champions. Past champions tend to have enough resources to do whatever they want after hanging up their leathers. Not many of them want to gypsy around the world, living in hotels, and spending work days at race tracks. But past champions or no, the coaches don’t race anymore. Yet they are an important part of the package that gets the racer to the top step of the podium.

There is no desire, on my part, to join the working pilots back out on the line. Hotel rooms and working days spent at airports stuffed full of human kind don’t hold much attraction. And, truth to tell, I don’t think getting a type rating in the airplane myself is all that important, though it is kind of fun to add another one to my license, just for boasting’s sake. In the aviation world type ratings are a bit like the gold star one got from a favorite teacher back in Kindergarten.

It would be more useful to run though the various scenarios, V1cuts, engine fires, ect., over and over to get the procedures down pat, sniffing out the smallest details of how to get it perfect. Then we could pass that along to the crews, like a riding coach helping get that last 0.1 of a second out of a difficult corner on the race track. But endless hours spent grinding through simulated skies setting up instrument approaches, doing circles in holding patters, talking on the radio? These folks do that day after day, and have been doing so for years. When it comes to a new airplane a bunch of hours figuring out the particular switch work is what they need, and they don’t need a full motion sim for that. Sim time should be spent concentrating on those difficult corners. Spend an hour doing V1 cuts, one after the other, where it is less then five minutes work from engine failure to flying or dying. Do ten of them in a row and the muscle memory will be there when needed. The same goes for engines blowing up, flight control failures, and electrical emergencies. Once the correct actions are taken, most problems are just an annoyance until the wheels touch down again. Then it becomes the maintenance department’s headache.

Repeated runs of low visibility departures and landings, the airplane at max take-off or landing weight, with the cross wind at maximum and / or the runways covered with snow would be time well spent. More of those difficult corners that lie at each end of a long, boring straight. Each of those only lasts a few minutes as well. A couple of hours in the sim and the crew could hammer out more of those twitchy departures and landings than they are likely to see in a year out on the line.

Still, as in all things in this modern world, the proper hoops must be jumped through, the boxes on various forms must be checked, and some sort of official blessing must be bestowed by both government and corporate powers-that-be. Though the sailing world has its own hoops, boxes, and brushes with officialdom, one rarely has to deal with such when out on big water in a small boat. Out there might be the last bastion of being completely responsible for ones’ own choices, answering only to Sister Ocean, Father Sky, and Mother Earth. That is not the same for the modern pilot. Cockpit voice recorders, data boxes, recorded communications, and radar flight track data will all be waiting to judge every action the crew took, and every word they spoke, after things went wonky. Even if they get the plane safely back to Mother Earth without putting a scratch on a passenger or bystander, some Monday morning quarterback somewhere will find fault with what they did. Human nature I guess, another advantage to being out on big water. Not a lot of humans milling around out there, looking for something to sound off about even if they don't have the slightest clue as to what really happened. Or what it took to survive.

Fortunately for me, when it comes to the effort of knocking off the rust, my Sim partner is one of those past champions who likes hanging around a race track. He is a retired check airman / instructor on Airbus airliners, flying mostly in Europe. His knowledge of instrument procedures / approaches / holds / misses / FMS operations is nothing short of encyclopedic. He even stumps our Instructor once in a while. It will be a bit embarrassing if, at some point down the road, he comes back for recurrent training and I end up as his Instructor. Sometimes the hoops and boxes are just short of silly, but at least I’ll know how to start up the Sim so we can work on getting the last bit of performance out of those difficult corners.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

So What's in Your Ditchbag?

We were two hours into a deep sleep when the fire alarm woke us. If you've never lived in an apartment before, there's simply no way to describe the brain-splitting volume of the alarms in the old St. Louis buildings. It took us a moment to even realize what it was since we were so dead to the world and, not seeing or smelling any smoke, we took the time to dress and put coats on. It's incredibly cold in St. Louis right now and standing on the street corner in my jammies just wasn't all that appealing.

Peering into the hallway, we still didn't see any smoke and only smelled the remnants of someones's cigar nearby. We made our way down the ten flights of stairs, only meeting one other family along the way. In the lobby there were maybe thirty or forty people milling about while the firemen checked the alarm panel. Within ten minutes we were given the all clear to return to our apartments.



The experience was weird for me after living on a boat for so long. On a boat, any alarm demands instant reaction, and any emergency is almost certainly life-threatening. Here, in a building with at least 150 apartments and probably 200-400 residents, only 30-40 people even paid any attention to the alarm. While we were waiting on the fire department to clear the building, I chatted with a couple of our neighbors. I was told that it happens on a fairly regular basis, the last one being six months ago which surely has resulted in alarm fatigue. My one neighbor told me that he always comes down now because the last one involved a fire in the dumpster that had traveled up the trash chute at the end of the building. He said it was a serious fire that could have become catastrophic quickly, so he now responds to every alarm.

After returning to our apartment, we talked a little about it all and I mused that maybe we needed an apartment ditch bag, one with our passports, jewelery, and space to throw our wallets, phones, iPads, Captain's licenses, and my treasured framed 4-leaf clover set that my daughter gave me. It's definitely easier to think about dealing with losing everything when you're parked on land and can walk to your daughter's house. Quite a bit different from having to jump into the water with what you have on to avoid a boat fire. Yet, even here, I can't pull myself away from the well established habits of the boat. Whether you live on a boat, or have returned to land, the mindfulness you learn while cruising is truly a great thing.

The photo above just a few hundred yards from our mooring at Dinner Key is the fire that caused me to put together our first ditch bag on Kintala, although it's developed over the years. My apartment ditch bag will be much smaller than the one we used on Kintala, just a small bag with a few things that are sentimentally irreplaceable to me. The ditch bag on Kintala was one of survival, and that for an unknown time span. Since I've been asked for the contents list before, I thought it would be an appropriate time to post it here. So what's in your ditch bag?

  • First aid kit - ours is actually a separate whole duffle-sized bag that is bright orange. I spent a long time assembling a good-quality first aid kit with seasick meds, prescriptions including antibiotics, a blood pressure reader, surgical wound closures, etc.
  • Portable VHF
  • Portable receive only SSB and 2 extra sets of batteries
  • Multiple space blankets
  • MREs for a week for the two of us
  • 8 quarts of water (yes, I know it's not enough but we wouldn't be able to lift the bag with adequate water. We would have to collect water with space blankets)
  • Flares
  • Distress flag
  • Signal mirror
  • 3 knives
  • Multi-tool
  • Small fishing kit
  • 2 inflatable pillows
  • Wind-up flashlight
  • Wind-up AM/FM radio
  • My prescription
  • 2 books
  • Pencils
  • Waterproof paper
  • Package of ginger candy
  • Extra pair of glasses and sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Patch kit
  • Superglue
  • Several pieces of rope
  • Bailing Cup
  • Passports
  • Boat documentation and insurance paperwork
  • Room to put our last minute items in: cell phones, our Delorme InReach satellite communicator and the EPIRB and, of course, my treasured four-leaf clovers.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

TwinkleStar

Two written tests are done and dusted. Two check rides remain. One, the FAA ride, includes a two hour oral exam. Those still lie a couple of weeks in the future. The GFS, a training aid that is a bare bones but accurate representation of the actual flight deck, is the focus of this week. Since hiring on, I have spent a bunch of days sitting in the thing, trying to get back up to speed. Hours were spent learning switch positions, running through checklists, rehearsing flows, and practicing procedures. Other hours went to learning to load the computers with flights plans, performance numbers, weight and balance data, instruments approaches, and holds. Then, of course, one has to figure out how to get the machine to actually do the stuff that has been loaded. All of it I kind of blundered through on my own, books in one hand while poking at switches, buttons, and curser controls with the other.

Now I am working the thing under the tutelage of an experienced Instructor, who will undoubtedly point out places where I taught myself the hard way to get something done. A nice thing is the EASA requirements insists that an additional GFS session actually be done in the Sim instead. Given training for two rides, there should be plenty of time to make friends with this new machine before the next round of tests. Though things are working out really well with the job, there are still rough moments to this. Some come from trying to scrub the rust off of pilot skills long neglected. Other bumpy moments happen while trying to fit into land living again. But the hardest are ones that I call “TwinkleStar” moments.

When we were on the boat with Daughter Eldest and Family nearby, Granddaughter Fourth would often climb up into my lap to help me play her a tune on my Uke. "TwinkleStar” was her name for whatever we played. (I'm sure you have already figured out where the name came from.) A few minutes here, a few minutes there, but those moments are the definition of what it means to share love. There were others, “Wizard Walks” with the grandsons, sitting in the park whittling shapes out of small branches, bird spotting, and cheering on the dolphins when they played nearby.

Once in a while, without warning and heedless of where I might be or what I might be doing at the time, one of those memories will flood through my mind, bringing a storm of both joy and hurt all jumbled together. The blow to the heart is enough to put a catch in one's breath, but there is an equally deep understanding that such moments are why we are here in the first place, that they are rare and wonderful. The memories should be cherished and celebrated as evidence of a life being well lived. The storm usually passes quickly and I go about my life knowing this is right where I should be at the moment, doing exactly what I should be doing. Daughters Middle and Youngest live near by, along with the grandkid Gang of Seven. New memories are already being added and, the truth is, if they weren't here we wouldn't be here either; great job or no.

It can be very confusing, being where I should be, where I want to be, doing something that is both challenging and worth my best efforts, yet being nowhere near where I long to be - playing “TwinkleStar” and watching the dolphins play.

Somehow we are fitting it together.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Strings of days…

Living on Kintala was usually a low key kind of life, but there were times when we had to push pretty hard. Long days would get strung together while trying to make it far enough south to get ahead of the cold weather. Other times the push would come from trying to get out of the hurricane zone in the early summer, or get back from the Islands in time to make that push north. Then there were strings of long days that came with trying to get the boat buttoned down and secured for an incoming storm, then getting out of Dodge ourselves before the storm arrived.

There were what seemed like an endless string of days working on the boat to get it ready to launch, or to launch the next time, or the time after that. There were days strung in a seemingly endless line, each feeling like the earth had stopped in its orbit around the sun right in the middle of summer in Florida, days that made me wonder if I would feel dry or cool or comfortable ever again. Of course all such days eventually faded into memory, replaced by easy days riding to an anchor or mooring ball, watching the moon rise over an uninhabited Cay or Bay, the water so still it tricked the mind into thinking it had never really moved, or would ever move again.

Since making the decision to do this land thing for a while, we have been stringing long days together again. The push to get Kintala to Titusville, the push to get to St. Louis, Deb’s push to get Kintala ready for the broker while I pushed to get the job secured and started, and the push to get settled into the apartment. The current push is to get through the type rating training and get qualified as a Flight Instructor. Current days are spent in a class with four other pilots, all of us working to make friends with this new, and very complex, airplane. The level of experience / expertise sitting with me is kind of amazing. There is an ex-Air Force flight test pilot who then spent 17 years at Southwest airlines. Another of the class was an Airbus test pilot while another is a current Embraer test pilot. Only two of us are US pilots, and I am the only one based in this country. Germany, England, and Spain are home for some, and the other US pilot is based in and flies around Asia. This is the level of expertise that will soon be looking at me from behind the work stations.

Okay then.

American pilots fly under FAA regulations, European pilots under those of EASA. Only an EASA trained instructor can do sim work with EASA pilots, and I have been asked to do both. There are other regulatory agencies for China, Russia, and others I don’t know. There are additional qualifications that are company specific, many having their own particular operating parameters. I haven’t been tossed into those waters yet. As it stands, I have to pass two different sets of tests, one for the FAA and one for EASA. And I still have to learn how to actually operate the Sim, Graphical Flight-Deck Sim, and classroom from the instructor’s seat. All interesting challenges that look to be their own kind of fun. But all also long days of work that must be finished before reaching the goal of actually instructing again.

It feels a bit like being just a couple of days out of Marathon on the migration north to the Chesapeake Bay. A good approach then was to get up each morning, haul the anchor, enjoy that day for what it had to offer, and not think too much about the long string of days of that still lay ahead before one could settle in again, at least for a while.  After all, part of the reason for being on the boat in the first place was to travel. Wouldn't it be kind of childish to complain just because there was a little to much of it happening all at once?

I am hoping the same kind of approach will work here as well. We came this way for good reasons, and it is working out better than we had dared hope. A string of long days seems a pretty fair trade, and it isn't like such a stretch is something new.

But I could have done without the 12 inches of snow.