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


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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

It's Official

The ad for Kintala went up on today. When I closed her up and drove away, it was my only desire to leave her for the new owners the way I would have wanted to find her when we bought her. Take a look at the photos and you be the judge - did I succeed?

You can also see the photos on the tab in the header above.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Cruising in a new location

We chose to live right in the middle of downtown St. Louis during our cruising hiatus for several reasons. We wanted a very small space to live in, boat-sized to be exact, so that we wouldn't accumulate stuff that would have to be dealt with when we go back to a boat. We also are so used to the simplicity of small-space living that we had no interest in spaces too large. Suburbia didn't interest us at all. The community-centered cruising life left us with no desire to live in the highly insulated life of St. Louis suburbs, o. We were used to interacting with people, and used to being able to walk to most of what we needed. Then there was also the idea of trying something new that we've never done when living here before. We'd lived in the city limits before when we lived in the Central West End condo, but it was on the outskirts. We've never actually lived right smack dab in the middle of a metropolitan city. On top of all of those reasons, I desperately needed to see the horizon, something that you couldn't do from any suburban house in the area. We found our place on the tenth floor in a high rise building about 15 blocks from the river, western exposure and sunsets included.

Yesterday was one of those unusual winter days in St. Louis - warm, sunny, and almost no wind. Just like we did when anchoring in a new place for us on Kintala, we took advantage of the weather to explore our new cruising grounds. As Tim said in his previous post, we started out by strolling the 15 blocks down to the river and the Gateway Arch, passing many other city parks that line Market Street along the way. On the way back, and via a coffee shop, we stopped by the Central Library, which is happily only two blocks from our apartment. One of the other advantages of living in a major metropolitan area is beautiful, old architectural structures. The library is one of those. We signed up for library cards and took to exploring what will surely be a place we spend many hours in.

The library was renovated right around the time we were casting off the docklines to go cruising, and we hadn't been there since. It's three floors of amazing collections of books, magazines, rare documents, visiting art exhibits, computer rooms and even a cafe. All technologically modern, housed in an architectural feat.

On the way up the split grand staircase there are a pair of beautiful stained glass windows. The staircase is a marble affair, cool to the touch, and I imagine the whole building would be a good respite from St. Louis summer heat. The staircase takes you to the third floor where the rare documents section is. After asking what the oldest manuscript they had there was, we were told it was cuneiform clay tablets from Mesopetamia. Most things in this section are locked behind a door to a temperature controlled room, but they are still available for public viewing with an appoinment.

We had to take a tour of the children's and teen's sections so we would be prepared for visits from grandkids. The sections are huge and filled with all sorts of books, games, puzzles, and fun but comfortable furniture for reading. They run a children's story hour weekly and once a month they do a theater production in the basement ampitheater for free. The teen section was as big as most libraries. Several of my grandkids would go nuts in there - long story series abound as well as walls of audio books and DVDs. 

The pièce de résistance, though, was a creative experience lab. They have a room with four pods equipped with very high-end computers and large 42" wall-mounted monitors. The computers are complete with every creativity program possible for digital project creation and editing - Photoshop, Indesign, music creation - you name it. You can begin a project there and take it to completion, or you can bring your project in and polish it off. It's good for both professionals and novices and they make a host of tutorials available for anyone that needs help. In one corner of the room is an enclosed music recording studio that you can reserve. It's an amazing resource, and it's all free.

The library was built beginning in 1901 with a substantial donation from Andrew Carnegie and a collection of  1,500 books. Today it houses over 4 million items in 16 branches. All through the library are displays of the original construction and the rehab of 2012. I'm sure if you spent a lot of time there, the stunning detail in the architecture would fade to the background, but for the time being I was pretty satisfied to just walk around and look. Everywhere you go there are painted ceilings, carved wood and stone, and embellishments of the sort that no one can afford to use when building these days. It's a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. Maybe not quite as good as turquoise water lapping crystalline beaches, but when it comes to man-made structures I'm pretty satisfied to have this five minutes from my apartment.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The End…

…of 2018 that is. The year didn’t end anything like I would have expected when it began. If anyone had suggested that it would close with us being back in St. Louis and Kintala on the hard for sale, the only thought that would have come to mind was that some real tragedy had struck. A second season worth of work at Snead Island was done, Deb and I both had Coast Guard Captain’s tickets tucked away, there was some money in the bank, and Daughter Eldest and Family were on their own boat living happily nearby. There was no reason to think that our life afloat would be history just 12 months later. And yet, here we are.

Yesterday we took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and went exploring, spending much of the day walking down to the river to check out the Gateway Arch National Park. Since we last lived in these parts, a lot of work has gone into the Park. Each year there are several major events held at the site. Since we will not have to struggle with parking, I suspect we will take advantage of many of them even if big crowds are not high up on my list of favorite things. We did, after all, come this way to have new adventures and live a different way. If the crowd gets too much, it is an easy walk home.

I was a bit surprised at the lack of a crowd yesterday, it being a near perfect day for walking and the Gateway Arch National Park being a major draw in the city. It turns out the Park was officially closed, along with much of the rest of the Government. I don’t pay much attention to such goings on anymore and was only vaguely aware of the shut-down. I have already ridden to the top of the Arch, don’t need to take that trip again, and so didn’t notice that the ticket office was closed. The grass, river, trees, sky and sun ignore such goings on as well, and they were what had called us out for our walk in the first place.

Tomorrow is my first day of type rating class. I took advantage of the slower pace between the holidays to book a bunch of hours in the Graphical Flight Deck Simulator. It seemed likely that the years spent on an actual deck-deck had left flight deck skills a bit rusty. But in fewer hours than feared, old habits started coming back, the cadence of events that make up departures and approaches started to feel right again. I am not sure that all of the technology actually reduces the work load as much as claimed, it has just changed the nature of the work being done. Electronic check lists are cool, but do the exact same job as paper check lists and take about the same amount of time to deploy and work through. Instead of concentrating on physically flying the airplane, pilots now concentrate on a litany of nav source / autopilot / flight director / auto-throttle mode annunciators and controls. If the air is smooth one can certainly do all of that while sipping at a cup of coffee, so to someone looking in from the outside, it might appear that there isn’t much work being done. And it is certainly a different kind of work than that which goes on in a boat yard in the middle of a Florida summer, not to mention that it pays a lot better.

This might be a pretty good year after all.

The arch at the riverfront. We hear the barge horns in our apartment from the river here.

The arch is just too big to fit it all in a photo!