A fun travel-related spectator sport

6 05 2011

In an earlier post I complained about the misery of domestic air travel in the United States. Another chapter has been added to my book of grievances this week… an airline that will remain unnamed neglected to load my suitcase in Dallas as I made my way cross country, east to west. I had exactly 7 minutes to make the connection due to a late incoming flight and my suitcase, alas, didn’t get the message.

But there are a couple of things I do like about travelling across this vast and diverse land.

My favorite place & photo of all time: the Grand Canyon at sunset (May 2007).

Aside from gawking at the spectacular and ever-changing scenery (see above), I like to engage in a truly distinctive but not really widespread or well-known sport.

We are all familiar with planespotters, right? They are those weirdos (usually male) with telephoto lenses who stand at the airport perimeter fence, rain or shine, noses to the chain-link and ears to their radio receivers. When the plane paparazzi spot an aircraft they have never seen before, a cheer goes up and the cameras get to work. You would think Penelope Cruz had just landed from Mars.

Well my favorite activity is a variation on this theme. (No, it’s not imagining that George Clooney just dropped in.) It is the unique and exclusively geeky spectator sport of “airport spotting.”

Flying is such a way of life in this country that there is bound to be an airfield of some sort framed by my oval jetliner window, at any given time while I am airborne. (Pilots here have no idea how lucky they are to have all these places to go.) And my challenge – the sport – is to find it.

Not far from every megalopolis is, of course, a commercial airport or two. That one’s easy to find, it usually has numerous terminal buildings and multiple parallel runways. If you’re lucky there’s even a crosswind runway, for good measure, making the tarmac footprint look like a giant “Z”.

Amongst the baseball diamonds, elaborate cloverleaf intersections, reservoirs and neighborhoods of suburbia, there is also always a landing strip or two to be seen somewhere. Usually it’s between a golf course and a highway.

Even a forlorn, lost little town in the middle of the desert in West Texas will, somewhere near its periphery, have at least one runway.

And sometimes there is just an airstrip, and no town. These are the fun ones to try and spot. You wonder, who even goes there – and why? Bonus points if you can actually read the numbers on the asphalt.

Look! An aistrip in the middle of nowhere!

So think about this the next time you have a clear view out an airplane window at cruising altitude. It gives you a rare and wonderful new perspective on earth and makes the time pass more quickly.

One day, I want to pilot my way across the country in a single-engine airplane, visiting a few of these many, many small and friendly places that, from my current vantage point in seat 14A at 36,000 feet, remain anonymous, unidentified. But when planning to fly myself from coast to coast, I look forward to discovering their names and their personalities, and what makes each and every one of them special.

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Endeavor… to dream.

30 04 2011

Thirty years and two weeks ago, a not-quite-11-year-old girl sat in front of her family’s television set, in the basement of a house overlooking a city in Britain’s west. She was transfixed. And in her, a dream was born.

The space shuttle Columbia – an experimental aircraft – had lifted off, orbited the earth and landed safely 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes, and 53 seconds later. It was the dawn of a new era in space travel. And this eleven-year-old had plans.

Columbia airborne.

She documented those two days in a diary which she still has today. In a child’s loopy handwriting, she proclaimed the technological supremacy of the western world over the Soviet one. It was the height of the Cold War, and countless nuclear warheads were pointed in both directions across the Iron Curtain. The race for space was at full throttle.

And at that moment, she decided to become an astronaut – long before Sally Ride punched through the atmosphere and NASA’s glass ceiling.

Too young to remember Apollo, the girl matured with the modern U.S. space program through the 1980’s, as the shuttle missions grew longer and more complex. She studied every detail of the aircraft’s cockpit, its flight capabilities and its many uses in exploration. She kept a detailed notebook, its columns filled with critical information about every flight. She collected the mission patches, watched as much television news coverage as possible and celebrated the program’s successes. And she promised herself that someday she would go to Cape Canaveral to experience a launch live. Preferably as a participant, and not merely as an observer.

On January 28, 1986, something sad and awful and unthinkable happened. Challenger had exploded just after lift off, killing its seven crewmembers. The girl was a teenager now, and for her it was the first of those moments in history where, years later, you turn to your lover or husband or friend and say: “I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard.”

The shuttle stopped flying for a while. And by the time the space program got back on track, she’d had to bury her childhood dream and build a new one. She took her ambition in a very different direction; far from Cape Canaveral, but close to its spirit of discovery.

Lightning struck the shuttle program a second time in February 2003. In the meantime the little girl was all grown up. She was a driven and moderately successful journalist, living a dream replaced.

It was evening as she sat on her bed on the top floor of a five-star hotel, in an island-nation on the other side of the world. She looked up at the television from the story she was writing, expecting to see Columbia’s landing. But the unthinkable had happened again. A surreal and sinking feeling gripped the young woman as the spacecraft – an old, close friend – disintegrated during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, taking all of her astronauts with her in flames.

So yesterday, a not-quite-41-year-old woman got into her car in South Florida, and started driving north. Cape Canaveral was just 160 miles (260 kilometers) away, and Endeavor was due to launch on its last mission at 3:47 p.m. It would be the next-to-last shuttle flight ever and probably her final chance to experience one live. She was so tantalizingly close, and could not possibly forgive herself if she didn’t try to get there.

It would be a pilgrimage, 30 years in the making; a kind of closure for the dream never realized.

Two hours and 120 miles later came the news no one wanted to hear: Endeavor’s launch was cancelled this day, due to a technical problem.

Endeavor, still here. (April 29, 2011)

In my sudden, crushing disappointment, I felt like the 11-year-old girl I was 30 years ago. I stopped the car and cried for something I wanted so much… but was just not meant to be.





Traveling with the kitchen sink (and a broken airplane)

23 04 2011

Domestic air travel in the U.S. is just not what it used to be. Of course, this is not news to many of you, but a recent flight once again highlighted the dangers and inconveniences of such a trip on a leading U.S. airline so I decided to write about it.

So beautiful outside. So dangerous inside.

My trip did not begin under an auspicious star. A faulty electric pump of some sort hindered engine start and grounded our airplane until the mechanics managed to man-handle it into submission. 150 captive and uninitiated passengers hoped the pump in question was not critical to the plane’s airworthiness, since it was obvious that the only way to get to where we were going was to stay seated. There was no replacement airplane anywhere in sight.

The “paperwork”, as the pilots called it, took an hour longer than the actual repair. So much for efficiency in air travel and my plans at my destination. The tear that ripped open the fuselage of a Southwest Airlines 737 over Arizona was still fresh in everyone’s minds, so I guess those responsible for maintenance and safety were a little more jumpy than usual.

All of us on the flight had gotten up before the crack of dawn to catch the plane, and it was infuriating to know that we could have stayed in bed a little longer after all.

Then other highlights of the flight included the standard-fare weirdo fellow passengers and parents with their unruly kids that make you just wish your limited personal space was enclosed in a germ-free, soundproof bubble.

The chips, crackers and snack boxes are for purchase only. And only available to credit-card holders. And they don’t even load lemon for my tea anymore.

But the most frustrating development in modern air travel in the last couple of years is the array of hand luggage that is schlepped into the aircraft at take-off time. Since airlines started charging real money to carry luggage down below, passengers have taken the initiative and are bringing everything with them into the plane. Including, it seems, the kitchen sink.

One unhealthily filled bin dangerously close to my head took two stewardesses and a big strong guy to close. One of four suitcases up there was a couple of square inches larger than the (official) permitted carry-on size, and the bin’s latch would not close, even after I slammed it three times with my fist. A method requiring some finesse – two people pushing on either side, while the third shoved the latch in – forced the desired result.

Passengers just boarding the plane, scoping out places to stow their bags, had to be deterred by a loud chorus of sharp warnings: “DON’T OPEN THAT BIN!!”

After that, the flight itself was uneventful. Arriving at my destination blew away the anger and the fatigue. And I managed to get out of the airplane safe, without major head or neck injury from flying luggage.

Whew. That was work.

Once at the gate, the carry-on luggage scrum begins.

PS. Upon arrival, I discovered that the US AIRline mentioned above wantonly broke the bag that I had checked in.  A series of exasperating conversations with three so-called “Customer Service” representatives yielded a clear and rather customer-unfriendly rebuff.





Challenges of the English language

10 03 2011

The other twilight I decided to wade into the darkness over South Florida and try a night flight through some of the busiest airspace in the world. But I discovered quickly that darkness is relative. Though the sun dropped behind the Everglades as it does every day, the southeastern tip of the country is far from dark. A sea of light illuminating the ground beneath our Cessna Skyhawk (as well as the clouds above it) was burning enough energy to power a small developing country. For a year or maybe two.

The lights end abruptly in a straight line though, north to south, and the black abyss of the Atlantic Ocean takes over.

Downtown Miami at night. Gorgeous, isnt it?

One of the great challenges of flying (day or night) in my home country is, I’ve discovered, that I have to actually relearn my own native language in order to figure out what’s going on on the aviation transmission frequencies.

You see, in Europe, where almost everyone speaks English as their first, second, third or fourth foreign language, the pace on the radio is slower and more deliberate. The directions given by the the air traffic controllers have a distinctly European flavor. (And still, I feel sooooo superior with my native English language skills and the “Level Six – English proficient” notation on my pilots’ license.)

But here in the land of the free and the home of the verbally challenged, I am quite simply, erm… a bit lost. That evening when I contacted what is called “Clearance” at my home airport, I gave them my call sign – N5213R – and my intentions – “shoreline south” – this is what I heard back:

“Five-two-one-three-romeo, shwewlypdkjahjhsadoifhniowneknrlkmkdnn. Blurph.”

Ummm… say what?

My response: “Five-two-one-three-romeo, say again slowly, please?”

“One-three-romeo, aslhfkjjkdsopnvoewsdfkljipelous. Opuwernx.”

I looked to the instructor sitting next to me.

“Don’t look at me, I didn’t understand him either,” he said.

A second “say again” call brought clarity, I was cleared to taxi and prepare for takeoff.

Not understanding what is going on is all fine and good when stationary on the ground. There is time to pause and think and breathe and stay out of everyone’s way. There is no pressure, no airspace to watch out for, no altitude or speed to maintain and no reason to worry that something bad just might happen the next second.

Once airborne, however, is when the real fun starts. Especially in, as previously mentioned, one of the busiest aviation centers in the entire country.

A sightseeing flight down to Miami and Key Biscayne crosses the airspace of two busy international airports, where the last thing they want to see is a single-engine gnat getting in the way. Being sucked into the air intake of a passenger jet headed for Europe would create a bad day for everyone.

So therefore little itty bitty aircraft like ours are asked (told) to keep low enough over the shoreline so that we can practically dip our toes into the ocean below, and wave to residents on the 43rd floor of the beachside apartment towers just west of us.  We are almost close enough to see what they are watching on TV. The big boys thunder overhead as they depart from or approach MIA or FLL.

And so the garbled radio transmissions continued this night. I asked the various stations to “say again s-l-o-w-l-y” no less than seven times. I’m sure they threw a party when N5213R landed safely at her home airport.

Damn foreigners.





Just another transatlantic crossing

1 03 2011

It’s 9pm local time, 3am where I came from – waaayyyy past my bedtime. After leaving winter in Europe, the tropical air here in South Florida, though not directly stifling, will take some time to get used to. A noncommittal breeze meanders around the building as the sprinkler system kicks in at the golf course just below my 4th floor window.

Lights flicker on at beachfront high-rises in the distance, and the sound of suburbia is disturbed only by the dull noise of commuters hading home on a major highway, about a mile away.

Welcome to South Florida!

I arrive here on LX 64, a time-share inhabitant of seat 27A. 10 hours and 45 minutes wedged into a corner of a steel tube headed southwest. Right from the start though, something is different… but maybe it really is just the wind. We taxi to the wrong end of the main runway 16/34 at Zurich Airport, take off towards the northwest instead of the southeast, thankfully sparing me the standard-pattern, stomach-churning, nerve-deadening steep left-hand turn over the city at 500 feet AGL. (There are days when you wonder if thrust and lift really will deliver what they promise. Days when you think the wingtip is close enough to scrape the roofs of houses below. An engine failure here would be a human catastrophe.)

But this is an uneventful trip, as transatlantic journeys go. Vegetarian lasagna (bad choice) on my tray-table accompanied by Grammy-winner Lady Antebellum on the sound system. The Social Network entertains me for two hours and I spend time working on the To-Do list that will keep me occupied days, nights and in-betweens for the next couple of weeks.

Pick up luggage – my suitcase takes a long time to emerge from the airport’s intestines (despite the prominent tag that says “Crew”) – and walk out the big double doors that separate MIA airside from landside. Here I always get a knot in my throat, quietly wishing my father would be standing there, waiting to pick me up, like he did for almost 10 years… and that his death 3 ½ years ago was just a really bad dream. I’m always disappointed.

The time from wheels-on-the-ground to drink-in-hand is a respectable 103 minutes, but far from our record of 79 minutes. Traffic on I-95 sucks.

But now I’m here and relieved. Home. In a way.

My great adventure begins with a beachfront sunrise skate at 6am.





True piloting and love letters

11 02 2011

On Monday I once again took a foray into the mysterious world of night flying. Two winters ago, I decided to get my qualification – under visual flight rules – just because, well, because it seemed like a cool thing to have.

Not that I would ever dare to go out there after sunset without an instructor safely belted into the right seat. You don’t actually SEE anything when you fly at night except lots of streetlights. And on this night the slim crescent moon provided zero additional illumination. So it just tends to be… really dark out there, and the biggest challenge is making sure you know where you are going. And avoiding terrain, of course.

Cool, huh?

We hit evening rush hour at Zurich International Airport, and despite having reserved a slot time in advance, the folks in the tower decided that our little Cessna 152 would be relegated to their lowest priority. HB-CFF is a trusty trainer, about my age, and, like me, a workhorse that loves to fly and hates to idle on the tarmac.

But as the one of the creatures lowest on the aviation food chain, she and her fellow 152s are also regularly subjected to a fair amount of abuse from aviation authorities (like air traffic controllers) and anyone who flies in anything with more than two seats.

Such as the insult of having to wait at the holding point as at least 15 heavies – commercial aircraft, behemoths of the sky – saunter past with the arrogance that giants tend to exude. They all know that our prop wash is peanuts against their jet blast, and they could knock us over in less time than it takes to say “Full power”.

Our view out the windshield is just about at the same level of their million-watt headlights. Thank you, gentlemen – that’s almost as much fun as enduring a laser attack on short final.

A full 23 minutes after an initial “Ready for Departure” call to Zurich Tower, I wondered aloud if Zurich Tower was going to let us sit there all night till we were completely blinded or till we ran out of fuel – whatever came second. A follow-up call had its desired effect: we were told to line up on the active runway 28. Only to wait some more as another three jets were cleared to cross on a taxiway in the distance.

Once (finally, FINALLY!) in the air, that familiar feeling of ultimate liberation returned and I once again wondered why it took me so long to come back. We flew into the deep orange stripe still highlighting the western horizon, chasing the sun that was long gone. Our destination was Basel, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of here, and finding the airport was a challenging mini-refresher in night navigation (sans GPS, folks).

Three smooth as silk touch-and-go’s on a runway lit up like a Christmas tree validated my confidence in my landing abilities. On the homeward leg, a clear starry sky stretched over us like a cloudless ink-black dome. Simply magical. It doesn’t get any better than this, I think. You just don’t get this feeling in an jet, no matter how hard you try.

Little birds like CFF are often mocked in places where tonnage and thrust play a leading role, but I maintain they are still the better way to fly. After all, what’s cooler? Actual piloting or systems management? It’s a philosophical discussion among aviators that’s been conducted ad nauseum since computers crept into the cockpit.

I guess that’s kind of like the debate between a ring binder full of paper and an I-pad. Of course the I-pad can do so much more than a stack of paper, but honestly – don’t you long for a handwritten love letter once in a while?

Yeah, me too.

 

(Thanks to the folks at Flying in Crosswinds for the ultra-cool night landing photo. And I sincerely apologize for not having given credit earlier.)