Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Better Vantage Point, part II

Recently, in late summer I’ve experienced some beautiful sights and challenging work days: a vertical moon beam projected downward through a narrow gap in the clouds, an expansive and vibrant rainbow, cumulus clouds that carry a punch greater than their looks, the real milky way coupled with meteors, cloud shadows trying to camouflage themselves as the woods in hill valley bottoms below, ‘embedded’ thunderstorms trying to hide behind haze and surrounding stratus clouds, a selection of ‘interesting’ (to say the least) Flight Attendants, an ATC induced go-around at Philadelphia and Indianapolis, and a few long, delayed duty days.

But for this second ‘vantage point’, I’d like to take you back in time a few years to just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, when I was based in Denver as a Captain flying the Beechcraft 1900 turboprop.

Flying for Great Lakes was basically driving me nuts, because during the fall of 2001I was getting junior manned to fly as a First Officer instead of as a Captain, and junior manned down to ten days off a month as well. I was able to switch bases to Minneapolis-St. Paul, and hoped for a lighter schedule load, and some adventurous winter flying. I learned that Vanguard Airlines, out of Kansas City, was growing their fleet and switching from 737’s to MD-80’s. KC is halfway between Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I grew up, and where we still live now in northwestern Iowa. It was kind of like a attracting an insect to a blue light.

That was the flying career situation for me by the spring of 2002. With tens of thousands of ‘heavy iron’ drivers furloughed or about to be furloughed from the majors, and none of the low cost carriers hiring, Vanguard seemed like a great place to go, until the majors and low cost carriers started hiring again, at least.

Their minimums were 1000 hours turbine PIC (pilot in command), but I applied anyway with 800 Turbine PIC, and got no response. After applying again with 1100, things happened quickly. I was soon in Vanguard’s ground school in Long Beach, California, experiencing a cool and rainy ‘So Cal’ spring while drinking up the MD-80’s systems ground school course from a fire hose, as the saying goes.

I had never flown a jet before, not a LearJet, and not a CitationJet. I was a little intimidated, because this was ‘Mad Dog’ jet, aptly named because of the MD initials and because the flying and handling characteristics aren’t reputed to be near as nice as the jets Mr. Boeing builds. Several fellow students in my class were veterans of Vanguard’s 737, and after learning about the McDonnell-Douglas product they recycled the old joke ‘Boeing builds airplanes, Douglas builds character’ among us. For an interesting page on the MD-80, click here.

After learning that the aircrafts’ roll control and pitch control wasn’t by hydraulics and was only by cable and ‘control tabs’, these same pilots said the MD-80 was the ‘0riginal fly by wire jet – on a one-eighth inch cable’. The ‘80’ was a stretched version of the DC-9, which had the same type of flight control system. The MD-80 also ushered in some new technology to the airlines, but it did so using an old style cockpit display and instrumentation. It had the ‘old school’ style ‘six pack’ of flight instruments in front of each pilot, but with an electronic display version of the attitude and horizontal situation indicator (EATT and EHSI). Added on was an advanced flight guidance system for the autopilot, automatic thrust control for the engines (autothrottles), and a flight management system (FMS). All this advancement in technology was meant to reduce the workload of the pilots, but because of the way it was cobbled together with the same usual instrumentation, plus additional panels for all the new technology, meant that in a way this aircraft actually increased the workload required by the pilots. I found this out quickly when flying it, and after transitioning later in my career to aircraft which have a full EFIS (Electronic Flight Instrumentation System) presentation on six TV like flight displays, I appreciated ‘full glass’ much more.

Once in the simulator, I found out that the quirks this jet had were true, the flying characteristics were like nothing I’ve ever flown before, even considering that I had never flown a jet. It was like being on the front end of a struggling sky dart. I was happy with how I made it through training in the simulator. However, once I started flying the real plane and got checked out online, it was an anxious transition. The controls felt funny, and it was a long jet, so long that I couldn’t see the wings from the seat. I was apprehensive about where to look, what to touch, and what the plane was going to do next.

The flight guidance system, which controlled the autopilot and flight director, was fully functional, but had to be used gingerly and wisely, or one would risk giving the passengers an uncomfortable and jerky ride. The same thinking went regarding the autothrottles. On line, good technique necessitated that we lead and lag the autothrottles thrust settings, and program a descent or climb rate slowly. Otherwise the passengers would get pushed or pulled in their seats too much.

The FMA – the flight mode annunciator, was a panel which displayed the armed and active modes of the autopilot and flight director. On a more modern EFIS aircraft the flight modes are shown just above the attitude indication, so in result, this separate panel actually increased our work scan: it was another instrument to include in our ‘scan’.

Hand flying the jet was interesting. Lag in the control response was to be expected, especially in pitch. In pitch the force felt in the control yoke was springy and spongy, light at first but it increased at a non-linear rate. There was a large null spot where the aircraft was trimmed out, where movement of the yoke seemed to not affect the pitch attitude of the aircraft at all. It was light in roll, and the yoke was spring centered back to neutral when released. When the yoke reached 5 degrees deflection, the roll spoilers deployed, and the roll rate increased suddenly. The rudder was the only surface powered hydraulically.

Click here for a good link to a few pictures of Vanguard's Md-80's. My first landing in one, with my hands on the controls was a doozey, oh it was! Seeing in my peripheral vision my Check Airman Captain reaching for yoke during flare is not a good thing. I had already increased back pressure during the flare, and didn’t know just where the ground was, so to speak. I was trying to land it ‘like the simulator’, how I had been told. But the sight picture out the window was totally different than I was used to, as at touchdown the deck height above the ground in the ‘80’ is quite a few feet higher than in the 1900. I knew this, and tried to compensate for it. Observing the plane sink the last ten feet down to the runway surface is a useful clue while landing, but it takes a while to get used to the sight picture in order to discern this. In a long jet the nose is increasing in pitch angle as you land, this mitigates the sink sight clues somewhat. The radio altimeter had called out our height above the ground from 50 feet down in ten foot increments. Well, it was supposed to be ten foot increments. “50-30-20-10” bam! Somewhere far behind me (72 feet or thereabouts) the tires hit like a body part hitting furniture while walking in slumber in a friend’s dark house. We didn’t bounce, I realized as I perceived the cockpit bulkhead shaking behind us in a wave of reverberation from the point of impact. Ugh, oh well. Chuck, my Check Airman, didn’t ask for a hard landing inspection after we both gave it a good once over during the post flight inspection. That was good, and I hoped I could redeem myself. The next few landings went better, fortunately!

There are similarities between learning and flying a new and unfamiliar airplane and growing spiritually in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Apprehension, anxiety, excitement/joy, and exhilaration can and will be experienced from one moment to the next, side by side. A classic phrase from aviation (the movie Top Gun) is "highway to the danger zone", and the similar phrase in Christianity describing spiritual growth, especially in mission, is to "get out of your comfort zone". A sense of purpose, mission, and challenge that each arena has can help provide motivation to fulfill the hopes and goals presented. Most of all, learning a new plane or growing in Christ isn’t best done alone; one is much more productive being engaged with the intimate personal assistance, teaching, and learning involved in each endeavor.

In ‘A better Vantage Point, Part I’ in August I wrote a little about the Vantage Point 3 program, a discipleship course my wife and I were in last year at our church. I’ll share with you now the details of the course. In part III (there’s a part III? ;) I’ll share the changes I’ve experienced as a result.

VP3 (for short) has helped to spark a process of renewal in both of our lives and in our marriage. Growing in Christ can be difficult; we’ve learned again that growing pains aren’t only for children. As Christians, it’s often easy to feel comfortable where we are in our spiritual lives. VP3 is a ministry based in Sioux Falls, SD, and their purpose is to develop emerging leaders for the church, to call and enable Christians to become who they are destined to be in Christ Jesus. It’s much like a discipleship group, but it operates a little differently. Our group of five men and nine women, plus our facilitator/associate Pastor, met together for an hour and a half each week. The sessions presented challenging thoughts and questions, and involved personal introspection and sharing from all of us.

The first stage of VP3 was called Biblical Foundations of Leadership. From a scripturally personal standpoint, I became reacquainted with my Christian foundations, and articulated my own personal biblical values. It was a confrontational experience to consider the values I say I have verses how I actually live them out. I was asked to consider and draft a personal biblical mandate.

As a class, we read four books. My two favorites were In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen, and The Gift of Being Yourself by David Benner. Nouwen has a unique but sound angle to our relationship with Jesus and how he can authentically be lived out in our lives. One big concept Nouwen expresses is that we should seek to be irrelevant to other people, not relevant, as one would assume. Why? Because as we are irrelevant to others while in relationship with them, they see and receive us as vulnerable, naked, and stripped to the core of our being. A being which has Christ lived out of us in Love, sacrifice, suffering, and serving others purely, just as Jesus did when he walked the earth. They can only respond in two ways: receive us as we are in Christ’s Love, or reject us.

Knowing God was of course a focus of VP3, but more emphasis was put on knowing your self, in that knowing yourself better, you can know God better as well, and thus permit God to indwell in the real you. David Benner’s great book The Gift of Being Yourself does a lot for the reader in that process; it is a deep book that I’ll read again this year. This is a concept which I hadn’t heard much about, and is very refreshing.

We were asked to write a personal faith narrative, framed by our life stories and events. In recounting my spiritual journey, I came to grips with my victories and my defeats, the times I’ve accepted the call of Christ and the times I’ve turned and gone my own way, and the pain it caused myself and others. I remembered and honored the ‘God things’ I’ve experienced: the events and moments in my life when I have truly seen or felt God and his grace and mercy, and the Holy Spirit act on my behalf. It is my story of God ‘meeting me where I’m at’ in my personal relationship with him, and it has great value to me. Nothing can take away my experiences of God acting personally in my life, leading me back into a right, fruitful, and intimate relationship with him, one step at a time. My VP3 brothers shared our stories with each other, and grew closer to each other in the process.

VP3 emphasized mentoring, both having a mentor during VP3 and becoming a mentor for others. A Christian mentor is more than an accountability partner; a mentor is brother or sister in Christ who listens to the song from your soul. A good mentor is a trusted and close friend, one you can bear your heart to, your spiritual and heartfelt victories, defeats, hang-ups, bitterness, questions, doubts, and one who will challenge you and teach you how to move forward, and to mentor others as well. I believe mentoring is a key to increasing the number of committed and discipled Christians in our nation and world. A united community of mentoring and mentored Christians will produce a harvest the church and the Lord will rejoice over.

The last stage of VP3, Functional Foundations of Leadership, is one I’m still grappling with. What habits and characteristics does a successful Christian leader have? What will I do to ensure I grow into and remain an emerging Christian Leader?

These last two paragraphs give a short version of a couple of the changes I've had as a result of VP3.
These days I have a more central and singular purpose in my life, and it all boils down to Jesus. Sure, my wife and children provide deep meaning and satisfaction to me, but my best person is in relationship with them through Christ. Ultimately, he gives me the deepest meaning, purpose, and satisfaction I have in my life. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.

As much as I love flying a jet through the sky, I sincerely don’t think I would keep doing it if it wasn’t for God sustaining me through the hard times of struggle and sacrifice. Doing it in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ helps me to continue packing for a five day trip away from my wife and family, with a half day commute on both sides.
Praise our one holy and true God!
And thanks again for visiting my blog.

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