Saturday, January 29, 2011

Western Kansas tells and smells

I have a few memories of western Kansas worth recollecting here.  Some are funny (and gross, beware), imprinted on me as some of the most surreal and sufferable moments of my flying career.  In spite of what you might think of western Kansas, generally known as a dry, flat farming place in the heartland, I found that the terrain is inspiring, the sky is big, the thunderstorms are incredible, and the people are honest, warmhearted, friendly, and God fearing.  A good combination, and its all accented with a western flair you won't find as much of in other parts of Kansas.  I've got three stories to share.  Dodge City is famous for good reasons, but on one overnight it became infamous for me; I'll get to that in a little bit, but first, a little Garden City infamy.

In the spring of 1998 I flew a 1964 Cessna 172 from Tulsa to Denver and back, stopping in Garden City, Kansas on the way there.  It was a VFR only plane with a rather weak 145 Hp Continental engine with an undersized propeller.  My wife was my 'co-pilot', and felt as anemic as the plane did on the second leg to Denver.  It was a beautiful day, but mountain wave prevailed over western Kansas all the way to the front range.  I got the plane up to 8,500 feet I think it was, slowly.  Our airspeed varied by plus or minus twenty-five knots in the wave if I maintained altitude, so I rode the smooth waves 300 feet up and down and minimized the speed changes.  Shannon was nauseous, but she made it there 'with the paper bag on her knee'. 

A couple days later when we were ready to fly back home, Shannon accepted a dose of Dramamine from my mother, and it helped her airsickness. I accepted a large cup of coffee from my mother, before we took off from Centennial airport near Denver.  I thought it was too large, but drank it like a dutiful son.

Our scheduled stop on the way back to Tulsa was Dodge City, east of Garden City, but after over an hour and a half (I think) of flying eastbound, my bladder was not cooperating.  I gave Shannon the sectional, asking "is this town on the map this one ahead of us?", motioning out the window.  "No, we're way back here", she responded, surprised that I couldn't quite read it.  Maybe you've been there, with your gums floating, and no way to pull over to 'the side of the road', flying a small plane with both hands, praying you can hold it till you land.  This was bad because now I couldn't concentrate enough even to read the map.  There was now way I could hold it till Dodge City, so I made a good decision to land again at Garden City, a little before Dodge City.  This was when my bladder started breathing.  Not really breathing, but cycling back and forth, telling me that it could only take so much more abuse; its a strange phenomenon.  Ahh, now, a little later we were on final approach, we were going to make it!  After a nice landing, I was concentrating on an actual FBO ramp worker guiding us in on the ramp; I was relieved that a mess wasn't going to happen after all.  However, with me distracted while parking, my bladder gave up.  It issued no further warning that it had had enough: the rubber band broke and the gates cracked open, just enough to require a change of jeans.  Doh!  My wife was embarrassed along with myself, as I attempted to stroll nonchalantly into the FBO, covering my dark spot with another pair of jeans and underwear.  Tip learned but not used on this occasion: a coffee cup or plastic bottle can be used for more than something to drink (but you need someone else to fly the plane)!

Just over two years later, in June of 2000, I found myself in western Kansas again, with a farmer from Iowa for a Captain.  I was new at my first airline, Great Lakes Airlines (named after Iowa's great lakes, not the real great lakes).  I had 'drank from the firehose' from February though March while getting through their ill reputed training, and was starting to feel comfortable on the line flying the 'mighty' Beechcraft 1900D "Beechliner" (even though it didn't have a bathroom).  After climbing out of Denver, we were headed to Liberal first, then to the Dodge City overnight in smooth air.

Western Kansas has lots of irrigated farmland, and most of it seems to be crop circles.  Not the unsolved mysteries kind, mind you, but the 'center pivot' irrigation kind.  This irrigation system is a big arm that water is pumped through.  It slowly sprays the field as the arm rotates about its center.  Its funny, two different passengers have asked me on flights when I was a fellow passenger to Denver and other points "what are those circles on the ground"?  They could hardly believe that these giant circles of brown, green, and yellow were really circularly irrigated farm fields. 

On the descent into Liberal from the north I saw many of these fields up close from my perch on the right side of the cockpit.  Except the sun low on the horizon, the type of wheat (I think) they were growing in the fields, and strange lights emanating up towards us all combined to make it one of the most surreal and beautiful sights I've ever witnessed as a pilot.

These circular wheat fields were a color purple.  There is such a thing as purple wheat, really, even purple bread, see?  I don't know if it was that, whether the golden light from the setting sun reflected that color from the soil, or a combination of the two.  To cap this scene of wonderment off, the center pivot of each field had a blinking strobe light on it.  In silence, my farmer turned pilot and I  watched this alien world flow by while finding our way into the 'airport' at dusk.  Was this an unknown, alien world we were about to touch down onto?  Were these strange fields landing bases for the UFO's my previously mentioned ignorant fellow passengers seemed to suspect?  No, but it was an engrossing thing to imagine, if even for a few moments.  But why were there strobe lights on the center pivots of the irrigation systems?  

Maybe for these reasons.  The wheat harvest has an intensity unrivalled in the grain world, because wheat has a fairly limited time between ripening and spoiling.  Large commercial harvesting crews attack fields with a team of large combines 24-7, they tell me.  My guess is strobe lights are on these center pivots because the crop dusters (agricultural aviators) work long days to keep the wheat healthy, from early dawn to late dusk, and need to see the obstructions that the irrigation systems are.  Here's a cool crop dusting video, they really skim over the crops.  

Fourteen months later, I was headed toward Dodge City again, this time as a Captain.  This informative link about Dodge City says that they slaughter 20,000 head of cattle a day there.  Actually, there's a slaughterhouse right next to the final approach into the airport.  And the corresponding odor of 'boiled blood' ("the smell of money") greeted us in August 2001 as we landed there on a 'high-speed' overnight (as we called them at Great Lakes).  A high-speed is a continuous duty overnight, meaning that you never go off duty, even though you go to the hotel (most nights, most airlines).  Instead of getting eight hours or more rest at the hotel, you get less than that, six if you're lucky, five or less if you're not.  I don't particularly enjoy high-speed overnights, especially into Dodge City.  I had done this particular short trip before, though, and had braced myself. 

Braced myself for the particularly bad hotel, no, motel we stayed in.  Braced myself for the smell and the short, six hour period between our scheduled arrival and departure time.  But it turned out I didn't brace myself enough.  By the way, Dodge City itself is a great place to spend some time exploring the real wild west history that occurred there.  I just never had time to do it myself.

I and my Italian-American First Officer were about to experience my worst overnight, ever.  I had warned him about the motel car, a first generation Dodge minivan with the second coat of spray can paint on it, which we could start without a key and drive back and forth to the motel.  But no one had told us about the gallon of milk someone had left in it for a few days, during the summer.  The smell was awful, as bad as the boiled blood from the cows were, and the container of carpet fresh they sympathetically left for us to spread around only masked it for a few seconds, it seemed.  The short ride into town was our saving grace.  Gagging on the sour, spoiled milk odor, I would stick my head out the window till I couldn't stand the smell from the daily slaughter.  Holding my nose didn't help because the taste was just as bad!  Back and forth our heads zig-zagged till we made it to the lovely Best Western a couple of miles from the airport, a favorite of bikers and a blue collar drinkers.  And it was a weekend night, as I remember.

In my room later, with the door shut, I got ready to hit the sack quickly, the alarm would buzz in about four hours.  After washing up I returned to my open bedding to find the biggest cockroach I've ever seem in my life smiling up at me, on the center of my pillow.  Incredulous, I managed to send it to an early death, then looked over and under the bed, and tucked in.  For about five minutes, that is, before switching to the other bed, logically.

In the shower a few short hours later I was cursing my luck, not only for what we were being put through, but because the maids conveniently forgot to leave towels or washcloths for me.  Actually, I was able to dry off with the lone foot towel, which they had left.  Some night drunk had smashed the glass door to the motel lobby, and after checking out we carefully went back through it and said good riddance to Dodge City, holding our breath back to the airport on a prairie hill.

Its crazy what pilots go through and are willing to put up with, in order to have a career in the skies.  They must love it, or they wouldn't be willing to put up with it, and this was true in my case.  I was glad to get out of Great Lakes and fly an MD-80 for Vanguard Airlines for three short months in Kansas City, before they went bankrupt and shut down.  But I'll always remember the sacrifices and hardships I and my family endured at Lakes, and the camaraderie, friendships, and adventure I had there in two short years.  I learned a lot, gained great experience (some of which were flying mistakes I made in western Kansas) that will benefit me for the rest of my career, and essentially earned my chops.  My hat is off to the 'Lakers' who continue being real 'airmen' still today.

God bless you, and thanks for reading my blog.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Guns, lately

This is just a political commentary I wanted to get off my chest, skip it if you want to!  I was going to include it in my next post but took it out here separately.  My 'gun story':  Hunters and other gun lovers types told me before the 2008 election that Obama was going to take away our gun rights.  That would require a repeal and/or re-interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.  I responded to all of them that I would march with them on the National Mall in Washington DC if and when that happens.  And I will.  But I seriously doubt an attempt to do that will be made by this President; that is just the politics of fear in action.

Yes, Saturday Night Special and Run Through the Jungle are ‘anti-gun songs’ on my current playlist. I could’ve put U2’s desire on there too I guess, but with the MLK Holiday recently, but “Pride” was a better choice. I’m not anti-gun, well, not completely. I support the 2nd Amendment, just not in a rabid, Ted Nugent, NRA type way. I’m a hunter, mostly upland birds, and I fully believe any American of sound mind has the right to own and responsibly use a firearm in certain conditions: to protect and defend yourself, your family, or livelihood while under attack or robbery, definitely; to hunt game for sport and food, definitely; to safeguard against an oppressive, totalitarian, unconstitutional federal or state government, yes also, if it comes to that. My caveats: (1) Guns should be used safely and NOT combined with alcohol and/or drug use, and out of the reach of curious children (locked up preferably or with trigger locks). Gun owners should learn how to shoot safely and effectively. (2) There’s too much knee jerk swaggering and posturing against the government by citizens with miniature arsenals, in my opinion. If ultra-right wing ‘patriots’ commit pre-emptive attacks against the government (and I won’t name names or events in the past) it’s fair to surmise that the government has the right to respond in order to maintain peace and order in our society. (3) Its also too easy for a mentally ill person to obtain a firearm, which is exactly what happened recently with Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson, Arizona. Without a legal requirement to check a gun purchaser for a history of mental illness in some way, shootings like the one in Tucson and at Virginia Tech (which left 32 humans cold and dead) will continue, my friends and fellow Americans.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Plan, New Year

Pilots are known for having 'new plans', "just in case", in the interest of safety.  The FAA and the airlines require it, and the philosophy of safe flying dictates it.  For example, an alternate airport for landing is required in certain forecast weather conditions (if the actual weather at the destination goes below approach minimums you might proceed to your alternate), and a specified fuel reserve at the destination is always required (if airborne delays occur or if fuel burn is higher than planned).  In case of engine failure enroute, a diversion airport is a subject frequently on the mind of pilots, especially single engine airplane pilots.  When we fly an instrument approach there is always a missed approach procedure associated with it which we plan on flying, if we don't have the runway in sight at the end of that approach.  Backup plans, and backup plans to the backup plans, are important to aviation safety.  And 'new plans' aren't just part of what's required, it's one ever present part of a professional (or professionally minded) pilot's thought processes.  Airline pilots even have 'new plans' for engine failure on takeoff roll and right at takeoff. 

In the midst of the Christmas season, full of promise and surprise, we got a surprise of our own, which required a new plan.  On a visual approach into Washington National airport, we were given some indications this was about to happen, and we were prepared, somewhat.  But in what transpired after that, we (at least I did) experienced for a moment a feeling of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  The phrase "airline flying is hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror" comes to mind.  Actually I don't think they were referring to short haul, east coast USA flying, but the quote still fits somewhat.  

It was a week before Christmas, and we were finishing our four day trip.  After landing in DC we were scheduled to fly to Norfolk, Virginia, and back, then go home.  On the way in from Detroit, the first flight of our day, I was flying a "Mount Vernon visual approach" up the Potomac river to runway 01. Washington National airport had a clear runway (no snow or ice on it) but braking action reports (good-fair for most of the runway but poor at the end).  This was odd, but there had been snow and ice recently on the airport.  Lately the asphalt runway there seemed to have a sheen on it, I guess leftover from deice applications to the runway.  More so, Washington Regan National is built on landfill right next tot the Potomac river, so it can be surmised that moisture from the ground near the river easily is drawn out to the runway surface.

A picture of Washington Reagan National airport from southwest of the airport looking to the northeast.  The green areas north of the Potomac river and bridges are the National mall, where the national monuments and prohibited airspace area P-56 are.
We turned final up the river to the north, and I commanded flaps and gear down, and
slowed our plane down to approach speed, about 140 knots.  Approach control had had us at 160 knots until five miles out, where my good First Officer contacted the control tower.  DCA tower said to slow immediately to final approach speed (which we were already at), and had an Embraer E-170 jet "line up and wait" (the new phraseology for "taxi into position and hold").  

We were waiting for clearance to land now on runway 01, the long runway at DC aligned towards the north, beyond which is the Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington Memorials, the National Mall, the White House, and the airspace designated as P-56 which encompassed them all.  It is simply the most important prohibited airspace in the nation, and we are to avoid penetrating it at all costs.  For a map of it, click on the "Mount Vernon visual approach" link above.  Our jet was about two and a half miles and one minute away from the runway, and my good FO and I had the same thoughts: we might be going around soon. 

Shortly after the jet in front of the E-170 took off and made the left turn up the Potomac river to the northwest to avoid the previously mentioned P-56 airspace, the control tower cleared the E-170 for takeoff.  We waited, the control tower waited, and then we waited some more.  The jet was stalling on the runway, not moving, I said out loud they probably had gotten deiced and were doing an engine clearing procedure before they released their brakes and started accelerating down the runway for takeoff.  We have a procedure for this as well, for our jet it takes twenty seconds at 'N1 60% engine RPM' before we can release brakes.  It is to clear out any residual deice fluid that might have made its way into the engines during the deicing process. 

Finally the black (really a dark navy blue colored fuselage) jet started moving.  It was going to be close.  We couldn't go any slower and the tower had not asked us to do s-turns to increase the spacing between this departing jet and ours, landing behind them on the same runway.  The autopilot was off, had been off, and I was concentrating on maintaining alignment with the runway, the proper glidepath on the glideslope, and our target airspeed.  What concentration I had left I was using to scan up the runway at the now fast accelerating jet in front of us.  From the beginning of this episode, I thought they would have enough clearance from us, many times when its close the jet in front of you breaks ground when you're 100-300 feet above the ground and you continue to a landing, but this time we heard the "100" callout from the radio altimeter, and I focused completely on landing the plane.

But this time I wouldn't have a chance.  Just at that moment the control tower commanded "Express 3784, go around".  The new plan was given.  My FO replied to the tower, "go-around, Express 3784.  As I pushed the GA (go-around) button on the side of the engine throttle lever handles, pulled back on the control column to raise the nose to match the pitch attitude commanded by the flight director on the attitude display (the PFD), and pushed the thrust levers forward to the appropriate position for takeoff thrust, all simultaneously and by rote training and reflex built in, I wondered one thing: which way are we going to go? 

I let this thought distract me too much, I admit.  But I'd never been in this situation before, at Washington Reagan National Airport, with the infamous P-56 right in front of us two miles ahead, and another jet taking off right below us.  It was so close that just before I started the turn (which I'll get to in a moment) I could see its nose pitching skyward from the ground below us as our glareshield (dashboard) blocked our view of him.

(Another view of the the White House and the Washington and Jefferson Memorials, with Washington National airport on the other side of the river beyond.  This view is looking south.)

If we'd had a few more hundred feet of clearance, we would've landed, but it was a good decision by the control tower.  With the braking action as it was, if that jet in front of us had aborted takeoff while we were landing, it would've made a bad situation.

As I was pitching the plane up and looking for the one below us, "Go-around, flaps 8" was said, and my good FO retracted the flaps.  Actually, she is the one that said it, while I was engrossed with the traffic conflict blossoming right in front of us and wondering what would happen next.  You see, the published missed approach procedure at DCA from runway 1 is to basically turn left to the northwest while climbing out and avoiding P-56.  Logically, we couldn't turn to the northwest because that's where the other jet was going, and we couldn't go straight ahead because we'd penetrate P-56 and cause a bunch of bad paperwork, in the least.

I repeated the callout I was supposed to have made in the first place, "go-around, flaps 8", and heard the tower say, for the second time but for the first time for my brain, "start your right turn now to heading zero-nine-zero (090 degrees), climb and maintain two thousand".  A new plan for the new plan had been given.  I smoothly but quickly rolled in a turn towards the right, while answering my FO's callout "positive rate" with "gear up, speed mode".  She had already selected the heading bug to 090 heading and selected heading mode on the flight guidance panel.  I hoped that our turn radius would keep us out of P-56.  We had had a slight tailwind on final approach, but by the time I rolled us wings level headed towards the east (090 degrees), I could see the US Capitol building off my left shoulder, at least one mile away, indicating that we were clear of P-56.

But there wasn't time to revel in our safety or wag fingers (at myself) at missed callouts, we were now above 'acceleration altitude' and needed to 'clean up and speed up', perform checklists, talk to approach control on the radio, and brief the passengers on what just happened.  It all happens pretty fast when both engines are turning and we do it only a handful of times a year, but its what we are trained to do and expected to do well; usually its an intense but routine experience.  And actually, my job was just to fly the plane, the autopilot was on again soon, and my good FO was getting everything done in short order.  She was irritated because approach control kept asking the reason for the go around (as if it was our fault perhaps?), and they could tell she was irritated with her response.  We had a normal landing the second try, with the tower leaving plenty of room for the jet in front of us to break ground.

After the engines were shut down at our parking spot, I apologized to my FO for missing that callout, and thanked her for covering me.  I had let complacency sneak up on me; as I said had never been in this situation before, but its not the best excuse.  I had talked about what would happen in the situation with other FO's on previous occasions, I believe this situation is commonly talked about by flight crews who frequent DCA and ponder the 'what ifs'.  But for some reason I didn't think we would really, really go around, and consequently I wasn't as mentally prepared for it as I should've been.  If I had been completely prepared for it, I would have briefed that we should expect to have a right turn on the go-around due to P-56 being in our way straight ahead and the other aircraft being in our way on the standard missed approach procedure up the river to the left. 

"Complacency kills" is a much used phrase in military aviation, but its application in civilian use is very much warranted.  Many jet accidents have incurred loss of life with complacency being declared as contributing factors by accident investigators.  I know that I'll be making this possible go-around briefing when traffic is trying to takeoff in front of us when I land in DC on runway 1 from now on.  If you'd like to comment on this event, please feel free to do so.

Now, this being a New Year, many folks have New Year's resolutions, its a tradition the world over.  A new year affords a new plan, and time for making promises and goals that we will do this and won't do that, that we will love and serve others better than we have in the past, and will take better care of ourselves and our loved ones. 

But we fail.  We make resolutions, promises, and goals, then try to make new habits routine, and sometimes they do stick, but often they fail, eventually.  Where does that leave us when we fail?  In regards to our standing with God, where does that leave us when we fail?

I'd like to take this moment to encourage you (as well as myself when I read this later) that if you call Jesus Christ your Savior, you have an amazing fringe benefit.  When you fail, when you slip up, when you take your eyes off of the prize, when you let others or yourself down, basically, when you sin, take heart!  Because God promises this, from Second Corinthians 5:17-19 and 5:21: 

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

"In Christ" (being spiritually connected to the body of believers in Jesus Christ), you are a new creation!  Like the old year has gone and the new year has come, the old person has gone and the new person has come.  Its a time to start over, a time to go-around and try again.  Believers aren't meant to continue in their old ways, they are meant to glorify God with their thoughts, actions, and their lives.  And the Holy Spirit, in concert with a believer's will submitted to its leading, gives the desire and power to live as a new creation of God.

Paraphrasing verse 21, Jesus, who never sinned, was made sin for us (by dying on the cross), so that through faith in Him we can be called righteous by God, (not by our own good deeds or works).  (See, turning to the right was and is a good thing!).  We are justified and saved by grace, through faith (Romans 3-4) as Abraham was.  Its a marvelous mystery, but true; read Romans 3-4 if you'd like to know more. 

If you believe in Jesus and can call him your personal Savior, but aren't happy with the way you've been living, God wants to meet you where you're at!  And that is one of the best things about Jesus, He IS a God who meets people where they're at - at their greatest point of need. 

With God's grace in our lives and a justification/salvation by faith, not by works, believers can do as many go-arounds and do-overs as needed to get through this life, with the assurance that we will spend eternity with God in heaven.  Knowledge of our true nature of salvation and the value of the work Jesus accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection results in believers becoming committed to the Lord, in just a fraction of the measure in return, that Jesus is committed to us.  My prayer for you is that you experience more of the Love and fellowship of our Lord, and that you have a better and blessed 2011.  Happy New Year!  God Bless you, and thanks again for reading my blog.