First Flight

26 07 2015

In the event of am earthquake, the safest place to be is… in the air. (Right?)

So, it’s about time I went flying again.

A first flight in a new place is always really special. The anticipation of going somewhere you have never been, figuring out airspace particulars (for one’s own safety and to keep the authorities at bay) and to experience what aviators native to this corner of the world also experience. Every place is a little different. The procedures are basically the same wherever you go, but the details are what make flying in a new location a challenging, learning and thrilling experience.

The pledge I made to myself when I earned my pilot’s license 14 years ago was this:

  • I will always fly for fun, and fun only.
  • I will not fly if it is work, or requires more risk-assessment, concentration and thought than chopping an onion.
  • I will only fly for pleasure, and in good weather.
  • I will only fly when the conditions promise something so spectacular that I forget how to describe it in words.

Since then, I have operated small aircraft as pilot-in-command in seven countries. Within the United States I have flown in the Northeast and in Florida. This week I played in the sky on the west coast for the first time.

And whenever I get back into the cockpit after a few weeks away, the tower clears me for takeoff and I line up on the runway, the great big numbers and a clear blue sky in front of me… I always wonder… “What took me so long?”

Bay Bridge.

Bay Bridge.

xxxxx

Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands.

The Golden Gate Bridge in the afternoon.

Golden Gate Bridge with a view to the City.

Financial District up close.

Financial District.

The City between spinning propeller blades.

Mission accomplished, pledge fulfilled, again.

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Screaming kids on airplanes

27 04 2012

So just because I love jetlag so much, I decided to go back to the States five days after I had just returned to Europe. Chicago last week, New York this week. But more about NYC another time, maybe.

Today I want to talk about children (again).

There is nothing on earth that brings the sociopath out in everyone than screeching, red-faced midgets on a transatlantic overnight flight.

I thought that my JFK-ZRH flight would be a good opportunity to get at least a few hours of shut-eye. Oh how wrong I was. Within the five rows around me there were seven kids ranging in age from about six months to 3 years.

Children in front of me, children to the right of me, children behind me.  There were no kids to the left of me because there was only a window, and beyond that, an airplane wing. And if you ask me, I would have put them all there rather than in the cabin with the rest of us.

The best place for kids: Outdoors!

Yes, attached to these children were also parents, all of whom seemed incapable and overwhelmed with the stress of parenting.

It’s bad enough when one child screams incessantly in a closed space with a captive audience of 200. But on this flight, they all screamed. Throughout the night. In a coordinated attempt to drive all the rest of us to commit extremely violent crimes.

Jethro Tull on the inflight entertainment system, at top volume, could not drown out these pint-sized terrorists.

My martyrdom (and that of my child-free co-passengers) lasted seven hours, thanks to a strong tailwind that got us to our destination faster than usual, plus 45 minutes of taxiing at both ends.

What can be done? I have three solutions:

  1. Completely child-free flights. Malaysia Airlines has the right idea, having banned infants from its First Class cabins and implementing a child-free upper deck on its new A380 aircraft from July 1. This is an idea whose time is way overdue. Folks like me who have to go from the gate to the office after an overnight flight will not stand for this kind of noise pollution much longer.
  2. An “objectionable noise surcharge,” kind of like the fuel surcharge all of us have gotten used to paying. The younger the child, the higher the tax. This would automatically disqualify families traveling with multiple infants because they would likely no longer be able to afford it.
  3. A sound-proof cabin at the back of the plane. Like a playpen, or a time-out box. Or just seal off the last five or six rows from the rest of the cabin with sound-proof glass. They used to put smokers at the back of the plane, and now we can just put kids there. Screaming (like smoking) is harmful to the environment and the health of all those individuals not currently engaged in it.

OK, time for all you parents with young kids to come at me with a machete. But you know darn well that I am right.  You have to deal with your own screaming kids all the time. You can’t escape them. (And don’t you wish you could?)

But ask yourselves this: Why must babies travel to other continents before they even know who they are? Why do you people drag them across oceans and time zones when they won’t remember any of it when they grow up? Why do you expose them to foreign germs and the misery of jetlag before their first day of school?

A suggestion that could keep all of us happy, the child-rich and the child-free: Show your kids your own country or region or continent when they are really small. There is so much to see in Europe, or North America, or Asia, alone. Then, when they turn six, or seven, or eight, when they are old enough to appreciate what you are offering them – that’s when you begin to show them the world.





Something this girl has just got to do

18 11 2011

There are some days when a girl’s just gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Like today, for example. Today, I just had to go fly.

Not because I had to get from point A to point B, and not because I had to quickly get some more flight time under my belt (or in my logbook) because my license or my rating expires next week. None of that. I just had to go fly, well, for the love of flying.

A little snippet of heaven.

The ocean of fog that envelops Zurich for most of every autumn lifted briefly this morning, and for the first time in what seems like a month, crystal-clear blue skies dominated from horizon to horizon. Wow! The sun! It’s still up there! Let’s go touch it, why don’t we?

I decided to trek up to the airfield for probably the last time this year, before the first winter storm puts the grass strip under 2 meters (6 feet) of snow.

HB-CFF is a trusty old bird who has accompanied me across this country and back already. She’s small and snug, has just two seats and is about the same age as I am, but handles like she just came off the Cessna production line. I wasn’t planning on going far, I just wanted to test my landing skills… I wanted to train, to practice, alone. To be aware of every rote task I perform in the cockpit as if I had never done it before – but with the self-assurance of a pilot who has done it a million times already. I would fly a few circuits around the airport and the region while enjoying the sunset and the Alps in the distance.

My ride had enough fuel and oil on board to take me over the mountains to Italy if I had wanted her to.

I took off to the north, and as I climbed into the open sky, I saw in the distance a fresh wall of fog, getting ready to roll back in my direction. The sun perched precariously on the peaks to the west, as color slowly bled out of the scenery below me. The blue hour was approaching fast.

The special thing about today’s flight was that there was absolutely nothing special about it – except for the spectacular view. It was routine, uneventful and safe. There was no weather or crosswind to speak of, just one or two others using the runway, and the visibility stretched clear across the central Swiss lowlands. It was simply magical.

Every time I fly I am reminded that there is no place I would rather be than in the cockpit, looking at the world from above.

After five gentle touch-and-gos, my confidence in my landings reinforced, I taxied back to the hangars and shut her down. It was quiet up at the field, already completely in shadow, with only the deep clanging of cow’s bells echoing across the valley. Six aircraft, finished with their duty for the day, were lined up in two neat rows.

Waiting for tomorrow’s adventures.





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.





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.





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.





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.