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.

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.)


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.)

Pre-dawn Magic

13 12 2010

Early morning has a kind of mystery about it. It’s my favorite time of day: The slow awakening and the lumbering way life begins anew every 24 hours.

Zurich’s airport also stirs gently from its nocturnal slumber, with little commotion. Passenger airliners of all sizes shift and move across the apron like featured pieces on a well-ordered chess board. Red beacons blink, runway lights sparkle, jet engines thunder, planes depart to and arrive from destinations unknown to the momentary observer.

Good morning, planet earth.

In the pre-dawn darkness, the airport has something magical, yet utterly rational and orderly. The long-distance mega-jets landing in from continents away disgorge their ragged passengers into the black, not-yet morning. For most of them this is just a short respite to stretch legs, grab a coffee and freshen up in functional terminal restrooms. Their final destinations are still hundreds if not thousands of miles from here – places they won’t reach until the European day is well underway.

A few can while away transfer time on the designer leather sofas of airline lounges, taking in the morning’s Financial Times and a Latte Macchiato. The exclusivity of privilege divides the traveling population into clearly demarcated groups of “haves” and “wish-they-hads”.

Meanwhile, the floodlit complex outside is dominated by “heavies” – Airbuses and Boeings of all shapes and sizes, with a couple of Embraer and British Aerospace jets thrown in for a good mix. Neatly arranged in rows and in various phases of ground operations, they await their next deployment. A queue of patient aircraft forms at the de-icing pad on the opposite side of the active runway.

You will hardly ever find private pilots cultivating their hobby before dawn, unless impending weather conditions demand an oh-too-early departure – a luxury the airliners, married to slot times and daily flight schedules, do not have.

Periwinkle-blue taxiway lights shimmer in the open space. I always thought these signals were a most peculiar, intense and unusual color – almost like an intruder among the white, amber, red and green that one would expect to find in a place where traffic meets. A disembodied voice from air traffic control directs the graceful giants of the sky through a labyrinth illuminated by these violet cones of light. Careful choreography guides aircraft to their assigned runway before they are once again released from gravity to do their job.

A few snowflakes meander through the air as the night fades to grey, and then quickly turns indigo. It’s the blue hour. Later, an orange stripe appears like a crown over the distant snow-covered Alps. And moments after that, the scene explodes into the bright yellow of morning.

Dawn has arrived and the day begins. The magic is broken. And the hectic daily grind of an international aviation hub commences.

Anyone’s Adventure

7 10 2010

There we were on a summer afternoon, an odd couple if there ever was one. Me, the pilot, in shorts and a t-shirt, riding left seat as usual, hands on the controls and concentrating on my cockpit. Snugly nestled into the seat at my right, my first-time passenger, in high-heeled wedge sandals and designer fashion, skeptically eyeing the dials on the instrument panel in front of her. On this day, she was a kind of virgin of the sky, on her first true aviation adventure.

I like taking up first-timers in light aircraft. Especially the veteran air travelers who have often used large airplanes to get from A to B, but never imagined doing this kind of thing for fun. These folks spend their lives at the back of the bus: herded like cattle from one terminal to the next, into long steel transportation tubes, the age of elegance in air travel long gone with the wind. (Unless you fly First Class on Emirates’ new A380. Which no normal person can afford anyway.)

They all have a decidedly lateral perspective on aviation.


Their view.


When they take a seat up front for the first time they gasp at the possibilities that unfold before them. Suddenly seeing the world out of the wide front windshield rather than out a porthole on the side is an entirely new experience that leaves many speechless. Due to anguish or excitement, I haven’t yet figured out.


My view.


In the past, the most complex tasks they had when flying were 1) to decide what they wanted for lunch and 2) figure out the entertainment system. (OK, that’s pretty complex…) When I give them the chance to drive the plane for a little while, they hang on to the yoke with a death grip. It’s funny – a few of them are naturals at flying straight and level. And others are hopeless. There is no in-between.

A first-timer asks fresh questions like: “Why does it feel like we are going so slow?” (As a tailwind propels us and the airspeed indicator shows a whopping 120 knots or 210 km/h.) Or they comment on things about which I have become blasé. “I’ve never seen the world like this before,” they say in awe as we cruise over landmarks they know only from the horizontal.

Those moments remind me how privileged I am.

Mountains are the great attraction of flying in Switzerland. I did my training in a region where the highest peak was maybe 1,500 feet (450 meters) above sea level. You could see the weather come for miles, and the words “downdraft,” “density altitude” and “paraglider” belonged to a foreign language. Exploring the Alps from above brought a new, thrilling dimension to my hobby, along with about a million more things to think about when at the controls of a single-engine piston aircraft.


Our view.


Even when earthbound, my thoughts are often airborne. Whenever my brain registers the hum of an engine overhead, I am programmed to look up. I always wonder what the view is like today from that cockpit. How are the weather conditions? Where is the pilot going and where did she come from? Is she up with first-timers? Or alone for a personal spin? Distancing herself from a worry, and trying to find a solution?

The fog that descends on Zurich for much of the autumn will probably keep me grounded for the next few weeks, but I look forward to taking off on a crisp, clear, sunny winter day when everything sparkles – the snow, the air outside the cockpit and my breath. And maybe I can convince another first-timer to come with me on a fairy-tale adventure like that, so that s/he can discover that other-worldly feeling of true freedom.