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.

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.


19 01 2011

A few weeks ago, I moved offices within our aquarium. I slid down a floor and over to the opposite side of the building – airside. On my Facebook profile I wrote: “Moved offices today…and am very pleasantly surprised at where I ended up. Not only can I sit here and watch airplanes all day, I can also listen to all the aviation radio communications on my ICOM (without static or interference)!!”

To which one smart-ass FB friend wrote back: “remember my dear, it is called ‘work.’”

Really? And all this time I honestly thought I was being paid to look out the window.

Nevertheless, there are times when one must just find ways to entertain oneself around here before one dies of a bore-out. So, I finally fired up my ICOM the other day just to listen in on what was going on out there… To attach real world information to the choreography of aircraft down below.

Zurich airport: home, sweet home.

And this is just a snippet of the radio communications I heard over the course of ten minutes around the busy lunch hour. On a disturbing note: all but two of the voices were male, which speaks volumes about the unfortunate state of gender diversity in the commercial airline cockpit in the second decade of the 21st century.

Hotel alpha whiskey, wind one zero zero, three knots, runway one-four clear to land, proceeding seven three seven ahead about to vacate.

Hotel zulu yankee, wind calm, QNH 1027 depart on discretion heliport.

Departing on discretion zulu yankee.

Swiss six-five heavy wind zero niner zero degrees, two knots, QNH 1027, runway one-four clear to land.

One-oh-niner charlie cross runway two-eight, on the other side contact apron one two one decimal seven five zero, goodday.

Twenty-one x-ray contact apron twenty-one decimal seven five.

Swiss one two six seven holding short runway two-eight on juliet.

One two six seven, cross runway two-eight, contact apron one two one decimal seven five.

Lufthansa six echo november expedite on fourteen you have traffic behind. If you can keep taxi speed vacate on hotel two, if not, hotel one please.

Two two five yankee grüezi.

Hotel charlie whisky, clear to land, QNH 1027 for heliport.

Singapore three four five wind zero eight zero three knots clear for take off runway one-six. Singapore three four five connect departure, byebye.

Speedbird seven one one, line up and wait runway two-eight.

One one seven seven wind zero seven zero degrees, four knots, clear to land runway one-four.

One one seven seven to land, hotel two clear?

Affirm, hotel two clear.

Hotel kilo golf enter control zone via sierra, QNH 1027 expect landing runway two-eight.

Hotel hotel x-ray, enter via sierra, QNH 1027, expect landing runway two-eight.

Golf romeo sierra contact departure.

Hotel kilo golf, are you able to hold short of runway one six after landing?

Hotel hotel x-ray proceed downwind runway two-eight, number two behind another Cessna.

Iberia three four six one on foxtrot, hold short of runway two-eight, landing traffic.

Swiss five six three hold position.

Hotel hotel x-ray wind calm runway two-eight, clear to land, expedite.


Ahhh. Music to my ears.

I have been called many things in my lifetime, but the name I wear like a badge of honor is “Flight Geek”. (Thanks, my friend – you know who you are.)