For the love of landings

2 09 2011

Let’s talk about landings.

We learn early that whatever goes up must come down. That gravity is a law and not an option.

So logic goes that all aircraft that leave the earth must also return to it, somehow.

What it's supposed to look like. (Passenger's perspective.)

The landing is the most difficult phase of flight. Returning the aircraft and its human cargo to the planet safely was probably the toughest thing I ever had to learn. And it took me a long, long, long time. Way longer than I thought it would – other pilots make it look so easy. And when my flight instructor sent me off on my first solo flight (that would end up including three landings) on a crisp November morning 11 years ago, I’m sure he was silently evoking the power of every higher authority that ever existed.

I lived to tell the tale.

So what’s it take? What’s so hard about a landing?

Well, all of us have experienced them many times, while sitting in the back of the bus, right? On your way to a vacation hotspot or from a business trip. There are four categories:

1) A rotten landing rattles your fillings, herniates your discs and has you later inspecting the runway for stray screws or other aircraft bits.

2) A good landing is one you can walk away from and use the airplane again.

3) A great landing is one you (and the airplane) didn’t even feel.

4) And for a phenomenal landing – the mother of all landings – read this.

Setting your aircraft on back on terra firma (or as in the above-mentioned example – taking it for a swim) requires copious amounts of instinct and skill to get it just right. “It’s a controlled crash with the earth,” someone once said. And you always hope your wheels point downwards for that crash, at least. During the final approach, speed, altitude and distance are in constant flux, and the play between the three is integral to a safe touchdown and happy passengers (as well as aircraft maintenance technicians, rental companies, their insurance agents and aviation authorities).

This past week I went flying with friends who had never experienced flight in a small airplane before. Their eyes grew wide as they assessed the instruments in the cockpit, and their endless curiosity was refreshing.

Lucky for them, I seriously greased every single landing. I even received a round of applause for one.

But it wasn’t always like this. In these past 11 years of flying I’ve had a few miserable episodes that shook my confidence to the core. During one phase after a particularly terrifying experience, I grounded myself for nine long months, afraid I had lost my fragile grip on the skill. It was a rough road back, paved with tears, frustration and agony. This was one thing I just didn’t want to fail at.

Older and wiser now, and with almost 200 hours and 350 solo landings to my name, I know that every single one of them poses a brand new challenge, in brand new conditions. And that no pilot (not even the ones who get paid to do this) can ever take anything about a landing for granted. I crave the thrill of it every time.





Autumn in August

7 08 2011

First came the rain.

For what seems like weeks, the heavens have opened up and drenched us here in central Europe. It seems 2011 went straight from Spring to Autumn, skipping what we usually call “Summer.” We have had the choice of either temperatures far below normal, or torrential downpours, or both. Last night another thunderstorm passed overhead.

The view from here.

The weather had put a severe cramp in my flying schedule, making me wonder when (or even ..if?) I would be able to start in on those hours that I need as pilot-in-command to keep current. The fun flying window in these latitudes lasts about four months in total, unless you are lucky and get a oh-so-rare clear, crisp day sometime in January.

So I planned a weekend flight. An early Saturday morning check of the aviation weather forecast had me in a good mood for the first time in days. Blue sky and sunshine as far as the eye could see. Summer! And I’m going flying! Yay! The webcam at my home airfield, located atop a high plateau in north-central Switzerland, showed it bathed in warm morning light – it would be a beautiful day for my checkride. And maybe I’d even have some time to play.

On the 45-minute drive to the airfield across the rolling hills of the Swiss midlands, I passed through fog banks, thick and juicy as the pea soup we usually deal with from October to March. At times I could barely see a few hundred feet ahead of me.

But there was none of that at the field, the rolling clouds below seemed to be on their way to other climes, or dissipating, just like the forecast said.

Paperwork, briefings, a last look at the METARs and TAFs before heading out for the pre-flight check. The fickle weather had forced me to minimally re-think our route, but it looked like we were all set for a glorious morning airborne. Just a quick fuel top-up and we’d be off.

We pulled up to the gas station, the first customers of the day. And a glance around to our six-o’clock told the story.

The light easterly breeze pulled in – you guessed it – the fog that had followed me all the way from Zurich. Within minutes the field was shrouded in a milky grey mist, the grass strip completely invisible from my vantage point atop a stepladder near the right wing, stinky fuel pump in hand.

So I filled ‘er up and waited.

And then I waited some more.

After about an hour of waiting, the sun pushed through a hole in the misty veil for a brief moment – too little time to get sorted and get out. And there was a second question that would remain unanswered this morning – even if we did get out… how would we get back in? It’s tough looking for a grass strip hiding beneath a thick, tenacious layer of fog. Not to mention more or less illegal with my rating.

And then… it started raining again.





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.





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.