Back to the (Supersonic) Future

Spike Aerospace S-512

Despite wars — both hot and cold — abroad and social upheaval at home, the 1960s must have been an incredible time for those in and around the aerospace industry.

Over the course of a single decade, the United States went from being unable to reliably launch a rocket (nearly half of the twenty-nine attempts in 1960 were failures) to putting men on the moon and bringing them back to Earth in one piece. In the realm of atmospheric flight, the 1960s saw the development and construction of the first supersonic passenger aircraft, the stratospheric cruising and futuristic-looking Concorde.

That was a half-century ago. I wonder, who could have predicted that the year 2014 would see the U.S. unable to launch a man into space on its own? Or that Concorde would be a dusty museum piece replaced by aircraft which lack the speed, altitude, and glamor of that legendary delta-winged craft? Anyone prescient enough to make that call would have been laughed out of the room. By 2014 we were going to be colonizing Mars!

While the march of computer technology has certainly eclipsed anything we could have dreamed of in the 60s, aerospace has, in many ways, stagnated. Visit any airport this side of Mojave and tell me I’m wrong.

Business Aviation Leads the Way

The space program has some promising “green shoots” with the Orion/SLS program and the emergence of third-party spaceships from companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. When it comes to atmospheric flight, the most exciting developments are no longer taking place at Boeing or Airbus. Over the past couple of decades, competition and market demand for ever more capable business aircraft has revolutionized that segment of general aviation. The VLJ sector has brought small, quiet, efficient business jets to market, while on the ultra-large cabin side, today’s airplanes fly higher, faster, and further than ever before.

But we’re pressing up against the limits of what’s possible through the continuing evolution of current designs. It begs the question: what comes next? I believe we’re headed back to the future. I’m talking about the return of supersonic aircraft to general aviation. Well, perhaps “return” isn’t the proper word, because GA has never had them. More like the return of supersonic passenger aircraft. There’s nothing on the horizon in that department from the airlines, but for the corporate/charter folks, there is plenty of research and development taking place.

Spike Aerospace has designs on one, and Gulfstream worked with NASA on a project called Quiet Spike in 2006 and 2007 where they retrofitted an F-15 with a 24 foot-long retractable nose spike to experiment with reductions in the sonic boom footprint. The goal was to find ways to make transonic flight possible over the continental U.S.

What's stranger than a 24 foot spike on the front of an F-15?  A Gulfstream logo on an F-15.

What’s stranger than a 24 foot spike on the front of an F-15? A Gulfstream logo on an F-15.

The Quiet Spike project has/had an offshoot called the Gulfstream X-54, which could very well be in development at this very moment. The X-54 is rumored to be an experimental stab at overcoming the challenges of domestic supersonic passenger flight.

Sukhoi also partnered with Gulfstream on a potential Mach 2+ business jet called the S-21 in the early 90s. They determined that there wasn’t enough of a market to proceed. But that was twenty years ago.

The Marketplace Is Ready

So what has changed to make supersonic flight a potential reality for passengers? After all, we’ve had supersonic aircraft since the late 1940s, and airliners capable of the feat for half a century now. A level of skepticism is understandable, especially in an industry known for physical vaporware, but I believe the elements are now in place to make this a reality.

For one thing, Gulfstream is now owned by General Dynamics, a conglomerate with deep pockets and significant experience with supersonic flight. If you were going to partner a bizjet manufacturer with organizations that could help it overcome the technical hurdles of a Mach 2 passenger aircraft, could there be any better synergy than Gulfstream, General Dynamics, and NASA?

Then there’s Gulfstream itself, which has become one of General Dynamics’s primary revenue sources. As always, just follow the money. In years past, the idea of a $120+ million corporate aircraft wold have been laughable. Airliners didn’t even cost that much. But today, Gulfstream is building $75 million business aircraft and buyers are lined up around the block to purchase them. Boeing manufactures corporate versions of the 747 and 787. Airbus has the ACJ. Clearly, price is not a show-stopper. With that in mind, maybe there is a market for a supersonic airplane.

From a technical standpoint, you can’t go much faster without exceeding the speed of sound. We are already flying around at Mach 0.9 and the G650 was dive tested to Mach 0.995, where plenty of transonic airflow must have already been present.

Profit and Loss

The primary reason I’m bullish on supersonic passenger flight now is because it makes far more sense for the corporate/charter market than the airlines. An airliner needs to make money for the owner. That’s their business, and the only reason those aircraft exist. If the jets don’t turn a profit, the airline goes bankrupt. As glamorous and enchanting as Concorde may have been, it was a money loser. And with fuel prices headed skyward faster than a ballistic fighter jet, the economics only got worse as time went on.

Corporate airplanes don’t have to make money. They aren’t profit centers in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end: a way to get more business done. Supersonic speeds would allow the transcontinental traveler to quite literally put more than 24 hours into a day. Imagine being able to hold a lunch meeting in Europe and have another one in North America on the same afternoon. Take a look at a map of the sheer number of aircraft crossing the Atlantic on a given day. It’s dramatic.

There’s another reason supersonic bizjets could work when an an airline version would not. Airliners carry hundreds of people and tons of cargo, catering, baggage, etc. A typical business aircraft might have 4-5 passengers on board, so there’s far less need for a big cabin or massive payload capability. The one thing every Mach 2 design has in common is the general shape: long and very slender. A space that would be cramped for 100 airline guests would feel far more luxurious if it was only occupied by a half-dozen businessmen. The needs of the corporate/charter market are simply a far better match for a supersonic design.

In conclusion, all the elements necessary for a successful supersonic business aircraft are in place. Now someone just has to build it. Between their Sukhoi partnership, the NASA Quiet Spike research, and the X-54, Gulfstream is obviously serious about taking the next step. They have General Dynamics’ resources, large market share, and deep-pocketed clientele.

My prediction: Gulfstream Aerospace will deliver a supersonic bizjet within the decade.

The Contract Pilot

Gulfstream G650

As much as one may love flying, it can be a tough career choice. Many pilots struggle through the food chain only to end up discouraged, if not downright hating their job. We’re all aware of the reasons: low pay, long days, little respect, too much time away from home, difficult working conditions, commuting, regulatory hassles, bankruptcies, furloughs, and ruinously expensive training.

Quite a list, isn’t it?

Ours is a small community; word gets around, and it begs the question, how many have bypassed a flying career altogether because of it? I once read a survey suggesting that most pilots would not recommend the field to their children. Of course, many vocations are in this rickety boat. Even formerly high-flying professions like physician and attorney have lost their luster. The message: “it ain’t what it used to be”.

On the other hand, life is often what we make of it. From bush flying to firefighting, there are many different gigs out there for those willing to take Frost’s road-less-traveled. For the past three years, for example, I’ve been flying as a “contract pilot” and truly enjoy it.

The Contractor

It’s kind of a generic term, since anyone who flies as an independent contractor rather than a traditional, W-2 employee fits the definition, but I’ll focus on Part 91 and 135 corporate/charter flying because that’s what I know best.

Contract pilots function as a kind of overflow labor. Operators might need temporary help in the cockpit for a variety of reasons: a full-timer is sick, on vacation, leaves the company, times out due to regulatory limitations, or is unavailable for some other reason. God forbid, maybe they ran into trouble with a checkride or medical exam. Perhaps a trip requires multiple pilots due to length or logistics.

Some companies find it advantageous to run tight on full-time labor and supplement with contract pilots since there are no annual costs for training or benefits. They only have to pay contractors when they’re actually used, so as the flight schedule ebbs and flows, they can gracefully scale their workforce up or down without the inefficiency of, say, leaving full-time, salaried pilots sitting at home for an extended period.

For the pilot, there are both pros and cons to life as a contractor.

Gulfstream G650

The Pros

  • You’ve got some control over your schedule and can decline trips. I really hate doing that, because a) I don’t want the company to stop calling me, and b) you never know when things will slow down, so it’s smart to sock away some acorns for the winter. But if you’ve got a big vacation planned or your best friend is getting married? You’re ultimately in control.
  • We can work for multiple operators, which can provide a bit of protection if the flying slows down at one company.
  • You aren’t tied to a seniority system. If you’re an experienced captain at company A, you needn’t start over as the lowest-paid right seater at company B.
  • Contractors earn far more per day than full-time employees, and therefore needn’t work as many days to reach a given income level. That means better quality of life, especially if you’re married and/or have kids.
  • Contract pilots are typically paid by the day. I might have a five day trip consisting of a flight to Hawaii followed by three days on the island before flying home. That’s five days “on the clock”. It can be a more lucrative system than one where you are compensated based on flight hours. Operators are essentially purchasing your time.
  • You’ll travel the country, if not the world. Instead of a few major airports, on larger aircraft like the Gulfstream, you’ll see places you’d never dream of. Though I haven’t been there — yet — North Korea and the South Pole have both been on the table. (Random note: Jeppesen does publish charts and procedures for Pyonyang!)
  • I always get an honest sense of gratitude from the operators for whom I fly, because by definition I’m helping them out when they really need a pilot. For example, I recently got a call from a Part 91 Gulfstream operator whose pilot broke his arm in the middle of a trip. I airlined out the same day and flew that evening’s leg to Las Vegas, keeping the aircraft on schedule.

The Cons

You knew there had to be a few, right?

  • Contractors inherit all the hassles of being your own boss. Does anyone work harder? From providing your own benefits (don’t get me started about healthcare) to paying self-employment taxes, it’s not always the carefree work-and-go-home experience of a full-time employee.
  • You pay for your own training. On a jet, the annual recurrent training costs run in the thousands. I currently allot $15,000/year for recurrent training and associated costs (airfare, hotels, food, incidentals) on my airplane. The expenses are deductible, which helps a bit, but I figure my first month’s work each year is spent digging my way back to financial “zero”.
  • You can’t control when the phone rings. That can mean short-notice trips and/or weird hours.
  • It can be hard to plan your life out when you never know what days you’ll be working. I average about 10 days a month away, so my philosophy has been to just plan my social life as usual, and make sure people know I sometimes have to reschedule or cancel.
  • Work can conflict with itself. I’ve had three operators call me for a trip on the same day. I can only be in one place at at time, so I “missed out” on two of them.
  • No guarantee of work. But then, history has shown that there are no guarantees in life or aviation for anyone, are there?
  • It can be tough getting started. As with many careers, the best entrée is knowing someone who can get you in the door. Initial start-up costs of obtaining a type rating can be a major barrier.

Gulfstream at Sunset

I like contracting because when a trip is offered I know it’s because the operator wants to use me rather than has to use me. Contracting represents some of the best that flying has to offer: adventure, interesting destinations and passengers, phenomenal aircraft, and decent pay for the work I do.

So why don’t more people jump into contracting? Awareness, for starters. Not everyone knows about this little niche. Also, it can be tough to break in to the business. You don’t have to know someone on the inside, but it certainly helps.

The initial expense is probably the largest impediment. The best compensation is found on the larger aircraft, and that means an expensive type rating funded solely by the contractor. Some pilots speculate on their ability to get work by obtaining the type before they have a job to use it on. Unless you’re well-heeled, that’s a big financial risk, but it works out for some people.

There is a rather circuitous way around the type rating burden: start off as a salaried employee and switch to contracting after a couple of years. That way the operator pays for your training and in exchange you accumulate a significant body of experience on the airplane.

FAA to the Rescue! Not.

I should note that contracting in the Part 135 world is a bit harder than it used to be. In the old days, if you were typed and current on an aircraft, you could fly for any charter company that operated that kind of plane. It wasn’t uncommon for a contract pilot to fly for several operators. A few years ago — for reasons no one has been able to adequately explain — the FAA essentially did away with that capability.

Today, a five-figure recurrent only entitles you to work for the certificate holder under whom you trained. It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran of ten years and 10,000 hours in a Gulfstream IV; if you went to recurrent on Company A’s OpSpec, as far as the FAA is concerned, when you move to Company B you are completely unqualified to operate a G-IV on any Part 135 flight until you’ve been through another recurrent… at your own expense, of course.

At first, this seemed like a potential deal-breaker for contract pilots, but it can help as much as it hurts. Just as the change make it harder for a contractor to work for multiple operators, it also makes it more challenging for that operator to replace a contract pilot since a successor wouldn’t be legal to fly until they went back for recurrent training.

Lock and loaded

Walking the Aviation Tightrope

Contracting does have something in common with scheduled airlines: it’s not right for everyone. If you’re the type that wants a fixed schedule or has to know exactly how much your bi-weekly paycheck is going to be, this ain’t the place. In addition to all the attributes of a good corporate or charter pilot, contracting requires the ability to run a business and cope with uneven income. Some months will be fantastic. Others, not so much. Even when business is slow, though, I get something valuable: more time at home with friends and family. Like I said at the top, life is what you make of it.

But the ability to earn a six figure income right off the bat while working a relatively small number of days? For me at least, it’s more than worth it. What I want in my flying carer is sustainability, the capacity to survive on this aviation tightrope, and ironically that’s what contracting provides. I want to fly without hating it, and that means avoiding the soul-crushing schedule and monotony of many professional flying jobs.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

Brazil

Cloud formations

Brazil has long been on my mental “bucket list” of places to visit. Not only is it one of the world’s largest countries both geographically and by population — fifth on both counts — but it’s also the center of attention right now because they are hosting 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Add in a Carnival or two and you’ve got quite a party!

Brazil also fascinates me because it contains the Amazon rainforest and is home to the planet’s greatest biological diversity. One in ten known species in the world lives in the Amazon, by far the largest collection anywhere. Speaking of diversity, from a sociological perspective Brazil is equally manifold; it’s home to a unique blend of so many European and African cultures that it almost reminds me of the United States.

Anyway, recently a two-week trip came up that allowed me to cross this one off my list in the best way possible: on the company dime. The trip originated in Los Angeles with a day of flying to Santa Barbara, Vermont, and then New York. The east coast has been having some spectacular fall weather which we were able to enjoy for a few days before departing at about 9:00 p.m. on an overnight flight to São Paulo.

Our route of flight from New York to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Our route of flight from New York to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

This was a maxed-out night of flying, as the Part 135 rules which govern on-demand charter only allow for ten hours of flight and fourteen hours of duty time per day. The straight-line distance is about 4,800 miles, just beyond the Gulfstream IV’s non-stop range, so we alighted in the Lesser Antilles island of Barbados after about four and a half hours for a splash (aka several thousand gallons) of kerosene before proceeding on a five hour leg to the Brazilian capital.

The second leg took us past Guyana and over the Amazon rainforest which, while it was teeming with life, was also one of the darkest places I’ve ever traveled. Even with a partial moon, from 45,000 feet the Amazon was like an earth-borne black hole, inky in every direction. I wasn’t just the absence of man-made lighting, because I witnessed far more luminosity from the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the sky was a much lighter shade of sable than the earth.

My thoughts went back to N87V, a U-21G which disappeared with three aboard during a uranium survey mission over the dense jungle of western Guyana back when I worked for Dynamic Aviation. Despite spending years and millions of dollars on search efforts, as far as I know the aircraft was never located. The jungle is like that. The forest canopy is so dense that it can swallow an aircraft, leaving no visual trace for searchers or satellites to pick up on. The foliage has a matte-like surface, so it makes sense that at night this same vegetation would absorb light. I can’t even imagine how dark it must be underneath the canopy.

Note the "IRS 1" lattitude of exactly zero degrees.  It means we're directly over the equator.

Note the “IRS 1″ lattitude of exactly zero degrees. It means we’re directly over the equator.

Despite the Gulfstream’s many creature comforts, overnighters are tough. I tried my best to get on a sleep-all-day/up-all-night schedule in the days leading up to the Brazil trip, but it’s easier said than done. Altering one’s circadian rhythms so drastically over just three days when you’re already several time zones away from home… well, it’s not impossible, but circumstances do tend to conspire against you. Room service knocking on the door, hotel maintenance, an occasional incoming phone call, invitations from the rest of the crew to grab a bite, etc. I pride myself on being able to sleep just about anywhere, but there’s always something keeping you on the front side of the clock.

That’s the long way of saying we were a bit bleary-eyed when the sun came up just prior to starting our descent into São Paulo. What first captured my attention was the sight of the city itself. I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that from 15,000 feet up, skyscrapers stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. There was no central “downtown” as you’d expect with most American cities — everywhere was downtown. The pilot I was flying with exclaimed, “I used to fly into Mexico City all the time and this place makes it look like a quaint little fishing village!” The official population of São Paulo is 12 million, but to my eyes that figure looked severely understated.

Congonhas Airport is at the top of the photo.  We departed this airport enroute to Salvador de Bahia in northern Brazil.  Sao Paulo makes Mexico City look like a tiny village.

Congonhas Airport is at the top of the photo. We departed this airport enroute to Salvador de Bahia in northern Brazil. São Paulo makes Mexico City look like a tiny village.

One element of the trip which was not surprising? The red tape associated with flying internationally. They have it in spades down there. After landing at Guarulhos Airport, I spied our hotel not a quarter of a mile away. Ah, sleep! Could it be true, I thought?

No, it couldn’t. Our handler did her best to expedite us through the maze of airport roadways and paperwork, but it was still two hours before we collected our room keys. The driver who shuttled us to the hotel spoke of the incredible cuisine available “in town”. I thought we were already in town! We inquired about how long it would take to get there and was told “two hours — three if there’s traffic”. It was just as well, I suppose; we’d be sleeping much of the day anyway and were scheduled to pick up passengers at São Paulo’s Congonhas Airport very early the following morning for a 900 mile leg to the Bahian capital of Salvador.

The flight guidance panel.  Our Mach .80 speed seems rather dowdy compared with the .90 of the new Gulfstream G650, but on an average leg the difference isn't all that great.

The flight guidance panel. Our Mach .80 speed seems rather dowdy compared with the .90 of the new Gulfstream G650, but on an average leg the difference isn’t all that great.

Salvador de Bahia is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and second only to Rio de Janero as a tourist destination. As a former colonial capital, it’s the spot where the confluence of African and Portuguese cultures is most apparent. We spent four days there at the Pestana Bahia Resort. It wouldn’t win many platitudes from travelers used to the comforts of high-end European or American accomodations, but it did the job and is apparently one of the nicer hotels in town. My room overlooked the rocky coastline where the wind was strong and constant. There were few English speakers in Salvador, so we had a chance to practice our rudimentary Portuguese. I probably insulted more people than anything else with my lousy vocabulary, but it’s been my experience that locals at least appreciate the effort.

The coast is this area is prone to strong wind and surf.  Not that I'm complaining; it sounded great and sure kept the air clear!

The coast is this area is prone to strong wind and surf. Not that I’m complaining; it sounded great and sure kept the air clear!

We were warned by the hotel not to venture outside at night on our own, and from seeing the town during the day I can understand why. Salvador is two cities in one. The southernmost portion is a modern business and financial hub teeming with glass skyscrapers, while the old town area is filled with the sort of colorful and historic colonial architecture you see throughout the Caribbean. Likewise the social and economic fortunes of the residents, where significant portions of the city are overcrowded slums while other sections are beautifully manicured — and gated.

Even the geography diverges; the downtown area sits on a different elevation than the rest of the old city, so an elevator was built to connect the two segments. It doesn’t seem terribly noteworthy until you discover that the Lacerda Elevator was constructed by Jesuit missionaries in 1610. As you might imagine, that first iteration was a bit short on creature comforts. It was operated via a manual rope-and-pulley arrangement. The conveyance was converted to a mechanical steam system around 1868 and then finally to electricity in 1928 (which explains the present art deco style). Imagine — this elevator has been in nearly continual operation for more than 400 years. Top that, Otis!

As an admitted foodie, my best memory of Salvador has to be the grub, especially a traditional Bahian meal we had at a local restaurant called Cafe de Tereza. Our main dish was moqueca, a seafood stew made with dende and coconut milk. They love coconuts down there — in fact it was far easier to find coconut water than the plain stuff. Our hotel put out rows of raw coconuts every day in the lobby, sliced open with a little straw and some fruit hanging off the top. The big adjustment from a culinary standpoint was getting used to the palm oil they use in most of their cooking. In the U.S., our staple is olive oil, but in South America the more plentiful palm oil is utilized. There’s nothing wrong with that, but food seemed to sit “heavier” in my stomach and made me feel fuller for a longer period.

Vitamin water, Brazilian style: straight from the coconut.  Though it wasn't always served this way, coconut water seemed to be available everywhere.

Vitamin water, Brazilian style: straight from the coconut. Though it wasn’t always served this way, coconut water seemed to be available everywhere.

Speaking of drinking, the caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail and one of my personal favorites. It’s akin to a South American mohito, except it’s made with cachaça, a rum-like spirit that’s made from fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses. On our last night in town, the staff at the FBO took us out to dinner and I was introduced to the caipiroksa, a variant crafted with vodka. The suggestion was to try it muddled with fresh strawberries. Delicious!

The following evening we geared up for another overnight flight — the return trip to Gotham — while the lucky passengers slept soundly in the back. The Gulfstream’s cabin is more than 41 feet long, so with only two guests, each was able to have their own generously-sized space. Not a bad way to travel if you’ve got a few extra bucks for the privilege!

The trips to and from Brazil were overnight flights.  Our passengers slept comfortably in the Gulfstream while we kept the watch up front.

The trips to and from Brazil were overnight flights. Our passengers slept comfortably in the Gulfstream while we kept the watch up front.

The only oddity on our trip was the early descent given by New York Center as we approached the U.S. coast. We were enjoying a gorgeous sunrise — or rather, I was enjoying it from the shade of the left seat as my compatriot suffered with a steadily intensifying reddish-yellow sun creeping into the sky on his side of the aircraft because this bird was not equipped with the retractable, dark film window shades found on most Gulfstreams.

Anyway, the radio crackled with a call for us to begin a descent. As I recall they had us down to 15,000 feet more than 200 miles from our destination. Premature descent clearances are nothing new for that part of the country, but this was comical even by those standards. Jets don’t like to fly low. Actually that’s not quite accurate. They have no problem being at that altitude, but it’s extremely inefficient from a fuel consumption standpoint. We spent the last hundred miles droning along at about 3,000 feet, thankful for having a generous fuel reserve.

Those red-eyes can be painfully long.  It's always worth it when a beautiful sunrise casts that reddish glow across the cockpit.

Those red-eyes can be painfully long. It’s always worth it when a beautiful sunrise casts that reddish glow across the cockpit.

This was an enjoyable trip in every respect: a fun crew, new destinations to explore, a lightly loaded aircraft, and plenty of time in between legs to rest up. Much like California, Brazil’s a place you could spend the rest of your life exploring without seeing everything. With all that’s going on there these days, I have a feeling it won’t be long before I’m saying “OLÁ” once again.

Southeast Alaska

A picturesque sunset over the harbor

I spent a few years in the 49th state while growing up, but for some reason never realized what a titanic place it is. Kind of ironic considering most things seem downright massive to a kid. Perhaps it’s because I lived near Anchorage, whose population is large enough (just shy of 300,000 inhabitants — 41% of the entire state tally!) to provide the look-and-feel of a major American city. It’s also blessed with temperate weather due to the comparatively low latitude and coastal location.

But that’s all on top. Truth to tell, once you get out of the “big city”, it quickly becomes clear that Alaska is a place of extremes. The mountains, the temperatures, the fuel and food bills, the natural resources, the isolation, the beauty, and of course the physical size of the state itself are larger-than-life. Even going to a restaurant was an exercise in extremes; one of our favorite joints was a steakhouse that served such a large slab of meat that if you could finish it, it was free. I never made it under that limbo stick.

Alaska has a lot in common with Texas, come to think of it. Big, wide open spaces, a thriving oil industry, and a proud, much-deserved reputation for self-reliance. Back when I lived there — the early-mid 1980s — there were plenty of Texans in the area because of the new pipeline which was bringing crude oil from the Northern Slope to Valdez for shipping to refineries in the lower 48. The locals always knew how to get a Texan’s goat: tell them that someday we’d split Alaska in two, thereby making Texas the third-largest state.

As I recall, they didn’t like that very much.

The early 80’s were a transitional time for southern Alaska. The population of Anchorage had grown by 263% over the previous decade and the area was still feeling the effects of such rapid expansion. Our little hamlet, Eagle River, doubled in size in less than five years, and the state was so flush with money that they instituted the Alaska Dividend, something which is best thought of as a reverse income tax. You’d get money — a percentage of the state’s oil revenue — simply for being a resident of Alaska. For an adult, the annual dividend check was more of a nicety than anything else, a small help in offsetting some of the high costs of living up there. But imagine being a 10 year old kid! It’s the early 80’s, you’re used to having nickles, dimes and quarters… and suddenly you’re getting a $1,000 check every year. “Score!!”

Like I said, a land of extremes.

The water's blue color is from glacial silt.

The water’s blue color is from glacial silt.

Anyway, since I started flying the Gulfstream, I’ve been back to Alaska several times. Anchorage is a frequent “tech stop” for fuel before launching off to Asia. I’ve also done a pair of crew swaps in Nome, and most recently spent a few days in southeastern Alaska on a charter trip.

We were scheduled to fly into small fishing village near Juneau, but pre-flight planning determined that most of the instrument approach procedures in that part of the state had just been NOTAM’d as “Not Authorized”. An interesting turn of events, to say the least. Alaska’s weather more often than not dictates the use of an IAP to get on the ground when you’re flying a turbojet, but suddenly most of them were stripped away. The only one still available was a localizer approach which featured a DME arc and a 65 degree offset between the final approach course and runway.

This approach also featured my first live experience with the “inverse C” symbol on the Jepp chart. If you’re not familiar, this symbol indicates the use of new circling minimums for the procedure. I wrote about this several months ago, presciently noting that “increasing the circling radii will often have the effect of raising the Minimum Descent Altitude, and that could make the procedure less valuable.” In this case, our circling minimums were 3,100′ AGL, so we literally needed VFR conditions to land. As anyone who’s been to southeast Alaska will tell you, that kind of weather doesn’t occur too often in the region, and this day was no exception. Despite good visibility underneath the layer, we never broke out and after a textbook missed approach procedure, diverted to Sitka where the weather was VFR.

The FAA had recently NOTAM'd many of the approaches in the area as out of service due to a magnetic variance in the region.

The FAA had recently NOTAM’d many of the approaches in the area as out of service due to a magnetic variance in the region.

As the state’s fourth largest city, Sitka boasts a massive population of 9,000. Even a blind man would identify Sitka as a fishing town due to the persistent smell of fish throughout the area. It’s not unpleasant, especially when mixed with the scent of salt air, but is definitely a sign that you’re “somewhere else”.

The airport features something wholly unfamiliar to most pilots these days: an on-site Flight Service Station. I had to think long and hard to determine whether I’d ever even been inside one of them before. I believe the answer is “no”. The lone employee working the facility enlightened us about the area’s approach procedures; they were NOTAM’d out of service because the FAA discovered a magnetic variation in the state’s panhandle.

Few of today's pilots have seen this:  it's the interior of a flight service station!  If you want a clearance here, just walk inside and pick it up.

Few of today’s pilots have seen this: it’s the interior of a flight service station! If you want a clearance here, just walk inside and pick it up.

As if this wasn’t enough, that day the list of banned procedures had grown significantly, and now included most of the departure procedures. Apparently this was causing havoc with lifeguard flights because without those departures they needed VFR weather in order to take off. While I understand the significance of magnetic variations on some IAPs, it was frustrating to see the satellite-based procedures cancelled due to this phenomenon. Wouldn’t a NOTAM announcing the variation be sufficient?

I was motivated to ask this question after seeing Alaska Airlines 737s coming and going from airports in IFR conditions. A fueler told me that they have their own custom, FAA-approved instrument approach procedures. So while the air ambulances were grounded, the airline soldiered on without a care in the world. This suggests a “red tape” situation more than a serious problem with the approaches. It’s probably driven — like most things these days — by liability concerns. The FAA is responsible for the approaches we were flying, whereas Alaska Airlines is the accountable party for their procedures.

There's nothing like fresh, crisp air and relaxing saunter through a scenic little town after a day of flying

There’s nothing like fresh, crisp air and relaxing saunter through a scenic little town after a day of flying

The next day, we repositioned the airplane to Petersburg, a short 100 nautical mile flight from Sitka. With only 2,800 residents, Petersburg is even smaller than Sitka, but differentiates itself from the latter with a strong Scandinavian character. The town was founded by Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian immigrant who started a cannery there in the 19th century. The village evolved into a successful fishing center due to the nearby LeConte Glacier icebergs, which provided a method of cooling the fish. Even today, it is one of the most successful fishing towns in that part of the world with huge hauls of salmon, halibut, black cod, king crab, tanner crab, and herring.

Petersburg is sometimes referred to as “Little Norway”, and boy does it look like it! In fact, I saw more Nordic flags than American ones on display in town while we were there. Every year on May 17th they celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day and hold an annual festival in honor of their Scandinavian heritage. Apparently they celebrate it longer and more boisterously than in Norway!

Petersburg is a town with major Nordic connections.  You'll see it in everything from street names to architecture.

Petersburg is a town with major Nordic connections. You’ll see it in everything from street names to architecture.

Alaskan towns are know for their high ratio of watering holes to inhabitants, but even by that metric, the folks in Petersburg know how to party! Perhaps it’s because the town sits on the northern end of an island which has no bridges to anywhere else and they have to make their own fun, but we were regaled with more than one story of legendary, alcohol-fueled hell-raising during the festival, including throwing an Alaska Airlines crew into the town jail just because they could.

As with many such towns in Alaska, boats and aircraft are every bit as important — perhaps even more so — than cars and trucks. Petersburg’s airport is much larger than one would expect for a town of that size. Even so, there was only one provider of Jet-A fuel: a helicopter operation run by a single employee. He answered the phones, flew the helicopter, did the maintenance, the whole works. Normally a Gulfstream is gassed up using a “pressure fueling” connection underneath the wing which transfers the fluid at a very high rate, but that wasn’t available here, so we had the not-unpleasant experience of fueling Alaska-style: with a traditional hose hoisted over the top of the wing through fuel caps that probably hadn’t been opened in 10 years.

Over-wing fueling is so rare that we weren’t even sure the fuel caps were unlocked, or where they key to unlock them might be. Thankfully we had no problem getting the caps open. Over-wing fueling is much slower than pressure fueling. We added a thousand gallons and it took at least an hour and a half to move the plane into position, add the Jet-A (at a rate of about 15 gallons per minute), and then reposition the aircraft to a dedicated concrete pad designed to hold something of it’s significant weight.

Adding a thousand gallons via over-wing fueling took about 90 minutes.

Adding a thousand gallons via over-wing fueling took about 90 minutes.

Our fueler was extremely friendly. In fact, everyone we encountered in Alaska was pleasant and helpful. The locals might not notice it, but coming from Southern California, it was clear as day to me since, sadly, we don’t always see that attitude down here. It was obvious that they take pride in their work and are always on the lookout for ways to help strangers. When we needed ice for the galley, a guy on the airport offered to drive me to the market. When we couldn’t find a ladder to check the fuel caps, there he was again, lending a hand and offering us a meal from the barbeque they were preparing outside their hangar.

The fueler was kind enough to not only do the grunt work of adding kerosene to our bird, but also offered to take us on a helicopter tour of the area since he had to reposition a logging crew from one place to another. Well we certainly weren’t going to say no to that!

After a quick meal in town, we returned to the airport and departed on a spectacular flight over Spirit Creek, Wrangall Narrows, Summer Straight, glaciers, and various other inner passages of southeast Alaska. It’s one thing to see sights like this from the flight levels, but quite another to watch them slide by from just a few hundred feet above the Earth. If you want to see things up close and personal, a jet is not the right tool for the job. When we’re down low in the Gulfstream it’s almost always because we are in the process of taking off or landing, so our sightseeing opportunities are rather limited.

Anyway, our intrepid pilot dropped us off in the midst of Tongass National Park, right next to a tiny U.S. Forest Service cabin on the edge of the Harding River. He zoomed away to move that work crew and left us free to explore the area for an hour or so. It’s moments like that that really make this job worth it. I looked around and couldn’t believe our good fortune. People pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of “getting away from it all”, and here I was being paid to do exactly the same thing!

Nothing to do here but relax and enjoy communing with nature.

Nothing to do here but relax and enjoy communing with nature.

That hour passed all too quickly. It seemed like just a few minutes before we heard the familiar sound of the rotorcraft’s blades beating the air into submission as our ride returned to pick us up. By this time the ceiling was down to 500′ overcast in light to moderate rain. Not something I’d typically fly VFR in. But then, this is Alaska, and we were in a helicopter, so it qualified as “better than average” conditions.

It was one of those perfect days. We had just enough time to head back to our hotel, grab a nap and shower, and return to the airport — a three minute drive — to prep the jet for a smooth, pleasant flight back to the “lower 48″. As we streaked across the sky, eight-and-a-half miles above the earth, I looked over my shoulder at the slowly setting sun and hoped I’d be headed back to the Last Frontier again soon.

Enjoy this gallery of photos from the trip:

The City of Lights

First order of business upon arrival:  food and wine!

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Were it not for the fact that he died 2,500 years ago, one might imagine this was a tip of the proverbial hat to those of us who fly ultra-long range jets.

To the general public, this kind of life is glamorous and carefree, but insiders know quite well that long-distance international trips frequently take on a yin-and-yang quality. Between blasting through a dozen time zones in a single flight and the long dark hours spent on oceanic red-eyes, they can be impressively exhausting.

Maybe that’s why pilots I’ve talked to who are scheduled to transition into the Gulfstream G650 aren’t always as enthusiastic about the upgrade as one might expect. Sure, it’s the latest and greatest business jet, but with 8,000 statute miles of range, those grizzled road warriors know that the jet lag from those max-endurance flights can be just as awe-inspiring, especially if it’s a Part 91 ship being flown by a single crew.

Of course, it goes without saying that there are many wonderful aspects to this sort of flying. These are the things most people think of when I tell them I’m headed to Paris: decadent food, historic architecture, wide boulevards, and world-class museums. And that’s what you’ll see in the photo gallery below, because… well, time zones are hard to capture on film.

This trip started with a series of airline flights, first to New York and then on to London via Kuwait Airways. We are fortunate to fly in business class when airlining internationally, and the guy I was traveling with was looking forward to a beer or two before he sacked out for the long flight over the pond. Little did he know that Kuwait is a dry airline!

Eventually we alighted in Paris and had a couple of days to enjoy the town before flying out. Our hotel was on the south side of the city in the 14th arrondissement and proved to be an ideal place from which to explore restaurants and cultural sites. The area is known as a home to many members of Paris’ arts community. Speaking of the which, here’s a short piece by a former roommate of mine that captures the quintessential joie de vivre in the City of Lights:

This was, I believe, my fifth trip to Paris. I’d visited many of the city’s lionized sites and museums over the years, but had yet to make it down to the catacombs. So we walked the two or three blocks to a completely nondescript entrance and took the long, dizzying circular staircase that leads to “The Empire of the Dead”, a series of tunnels buried deep beneath the streets and Metro lines where the remains of more than six million Parisians are stored.

As we walked along the dark passageways, I couldn’t help but wonder who all these people had been. Was there a famous painter down here? A great political genius, a scientific wunderkind? You could literally walk for miles and see nothing but piles of bones on both sides of the tunnel, stacked five or six feet high. The “six million” figure brought to mind the Holocaust, and the sheer magnitude of the humanity represented there.

These people, of course, were not victims of a genocide, but rather ordinary citizens who had been buried in cemeteries within what were at that time the city limits of Paris. Eventually the graveyards began overflowing with human remains, and so the decision was made to relocate the bones to former mining tunnels out the outskirts of the city which had been dug in order to obtain the limestone needed to construct Paris’ many architectural landmarks.

As much as I enjoyed the experience of being 100 feet underground in musty, dark medieval caverns, it was nice to get back up to the surface among the living. There are some who really enjoy exploring the catacombs, however, and do so to the point where they’re almost living down there.

Between sightseeing and long relaxed meals, time in Paris tends to go by quickly and pleasantly. Eventually work called and we jetted off to Green Bay, Wisconsin for what’s referred to as a “tech stop” — a landing for fuel and/or a crew swap. Under Part 135 rules, pilots are not allowed to fly more than 10 hours in a 24 hour period. That’s not to say our work day can’t be longer than 10 hours. Between pre- and post-flight activities, it’s often much longer. But when flying charter passengers, we are prohibited from functioning as flight crew members for more than 10 hours of flying in a single day.

In the Gulfstream IV, this works out pretty well because that also happens to approximate the jet’s fuel capacity, so upon landing in Wisconsin the airplane was re-fueled, re-catered, and turned over to another crew who were taking the passengers on to their ultimate destination somewhere along the west coast. The “10 hour” rule doesn’t apply to flight attendants, however, so our FA continued on with the airplane while I got to adjourn to a warm meal and bed.

After spending the evening there, I realized that Green Bay might have more in common with Paris than it does with Orange County, California. For one thing, there’s the snow and cold wind that seems to penetrate even the most substantial clothing. That’s rather foreign to residents of coastal Southern California!

Another similarity: both Wisconsin and France are obsessed with cheese. I actually had a 45 minute conversation with someone over the squeaking sound of cheese curds, and another half hour about why they don’t squeak once they’re fried.

I am not making this up.

The next morning, we airlined to Chicago and then LAX, where I shuttled to my car and then fought rush hour traffic on the way to Orange County.

I try to keep my watch on Pacific Standard Time, as it seems to help stave off jet lag. Probably has something to do with keeping mental track of what everyone’s doing back home. Sleeping, working, eating lunch, etc. I’ve found that if I can periodically “check in” with the daily routine of my home time zone, the rhythm seems easier to fall back into once I’ve returned to California.

Enjoy the photos: