Adrift in a Sea of Fog

fog

There’s something very black-and-white about a silent, gray fog. I’ve learned that there are two types of people: those that love it and those that hate it. Very few individuals are ambivalent.

Me, I’m in the former category. Fog is cool — literally. And it provides a welcome respite from endless days of harsh sun. It’s a living thing, dramatic and mysterious as it reflects light and sound, enveloping the body and making the world a smaller place. Even one’s heartbeat seems to bounce off the vapor somehow, encouraging introspection and repose.

My wife, on the other hand, finds any sort of overcast to be depressing. The demotivating effect seems to grasp Kristi more strongly as the weather lowers, so it goes without saying that towns like San Francisco and London will never be her cup of tea.

Thankfully for her, we don’t get much fog in Orange County — not the real stuff, anyway. Ours is the coastal stratus variety, a cousin of the famously dense San Francisco brume which, unlike fog, doesn’t typically make it all the way down to the Earth’s surface. Instead, it hovers like a protective blanket, a thousand feet or so above the terrain.

But even that is welcome as far as I’m concerned. As a pilot, a deep fog means little if any chance of flying, whereas the coastal stratus stays high enough to allow most of our aviating to proceed. For the instrument pilot or trainee, this kind of stratus is the most benign form of Instrument Meterological Conditions (IMC) they’ll ever encounter. Smooth air with no worries about convection or icing. And best of all, safe, clear skies both above and below the cloud layer.

Photographer Simon Christen spent two years (yes, you read that right) putting together a four minute time-lapse film of the mist sweeping and swirling around San Francisco. It’s astounding to see how closely the fog mirrors the action of water, even to the point of mimicking the rising and falling tides. I almost expected to see broken shells, sand crabs, and other detritus littering the landscape after the mist receded.

There’s no cast, no dialogue, and no plot in Mr. Christen’s creation, but I’d wager that you’ll find this flowing sea of tranquility as riveting as anything on the interwebs. Enjoy the show!

The Year in Review

If there's one thing you get to see plenty of when you fly, it's beautiful sunsets, and 2011 had more than its share!

Welcome to 2012, the year it’s all supposed to end. Everyone likes to joke about the Mayan calendar, but perhaps they simply knew the election cycle would be tedious enough to make the entire planet take the Jonestown route.

The turning of another page on the calendar reminds us of the passage of time. Or at least, it would if anyone had a calendar with physical pages to turn. For most it’s now done with the click of a mouse or flick of the finger on the iPhone. Even that is becoming passé — now you can simply talk to Siri and have her handle the scheduling for you.

Oh those wacky Mayans!

I wonder how long it will be before we can say things like, “Siri, load the ILS 19 approach and fly it for me. After we land, please taxi to Atlantic and have them add 16,000 pounds of fuel. Oh, and order ‘the usual’ for me with the caterers, will you?”

The past twelve months has seen some changes for me in the flying department. Last month I flew my final flight in the U-21A for Dynamic Aviation and got the ceremonial hose-down by the Los Alamitos JFTB fire department.

A fellow pilot captured part of the event on a solid-state video camera he’d won at the company Christmas party the night before. He apologized profusely for the quality, but I’m just happy to have a memory of my final day there.

Over the course of four years I logged 2,000 hours of time in those old Vietnam birds, upgraded to captain, and flew as a training captain to help the up-and-coming PICs get comfortable with the left seat.

I won’t miss cleaning out augers, flying at the top of the inversion layer on a 105 degree day with hot air from the compressor being exhausted into the cockpit, or taking off and landing at the same airport all the time. But there are certainly some things I’ll miss about the job. The people, for one. Though many of them were low-time when they’d arrive at CMF, that didn’t matter. I always admired the positive attitude, strong work ethic, and good humor they’d display. It was inspiring to watch them learn and grow.

The aircraft were pretty bare-bones, lacking even a simple autopilot. So the whole 2,000 hours were hand-flown with a great degree of precision (measured in feet!) in high-density airspace, often at low altitude, very close to terrain, and it places that one would not normally be allowed to fly at all, let alone VFR.

Cirrus SR-22

True story: I was flying back to Orange County from Napa in an SR-22 a couple of years ago and drank a huge cup of iced tea en route. By the time I reached southern California, I really needed to get to the bathroom. As I approached Van Nuys, I asked the controller if I could take a shortcut through the LA Class Bravo airspace and go direct to SNA.

At first the controller flatly denied me, saying “you can’t just do whatever you want around here, you have to fly one of the published transition routes or go around the airspace!”. After a moment’s thought, I keyed the mike and said, “Would it make any difference if I said I was a Medfly pilot?”. He replied, “Oh, you fly for Medfly?? Cleared through the bravo airspace, proceed direct John Wayne Airport.” As they say, membership has its privileges.

At Medfly, there were times when we’d literally be in a loose formation with A380s on final for LAX. Down at 500′ mixing it up with helicopters. Dodging skydivers (or as we called them, meat-bombs) around Lake Elsinore. Zipping up and down the Cajon pass while turbulence beat us to hell and back. Making 60 degree bank turns and reversing course while rolling out within 10 feet of the center of the next course line. My accuracy wasn’t always that good, but I somehow convinced myself to take credit for it when it was.

Of course, the big event for me in 2011 was moving into the Gulfstream IV. After spending the better part of a month in Dallas this past summer obtaining my type rating, I’ve had a few months to get used to the real-world aspect of flying this airplane and learning how much I still have to learn.

Another beautiful sunset as seen from the flight levels

The G-IV is a fairly complex piece of machinery and there are all sorts of quirks, tips, flows, rules-of-thumb, and procedures you don’t get taught in school. Thankfully I’ve been flying with some highly experienced pilots who have been passing that stuff along. As the “new guy”, you want to ask questions, but not so many that you become annoying. My 6+ years as an instructor taught me that you can learn an awful lot by watching, so I do that as much as possible.

I’m also new to international flying, and have made several Atlantic and Pacific crossings. None of this stuff is hard, but details are important in this job and there are plenty of them. Miss just one and you can find yourself in a pickle. Example: I flew a pair of Hawaii trips over the new year, and somehow managed to airline out to Kona without taking the black pants which are a rather vital part of my uniform. Small detail, but kind of an important one. On the plus side, I learned something new: the Macy’s in Kona stays open until 9 pm on New Year’s eve.

In the room-for-improvement category, landing the Gulfstream is still a bit hit-and-miss for me. Oh, the landings are all perfectly safe. But when there are passengers on board, pilots pride themselves in providing the smoothest ride possible, and the landing is one of the last things they experience.

Kristi got her first ride the G-IV in 2011. Hmmm, come to think of it, so did I!

Swept-wing jets are a little different than other aircraft in that regard. For one thing, with the radar altimeter, judging one’s altitude above the ground is a non-event. The aircraft verbally counts down your altitude from 50′ AGL in 10 foot increments. But once the mains are down, the nose must also be flared for landing, lest it come crashing down with enough force to make you wonder if that’s how the nutcracker got it’s name. Getting it just right takes a bit of finesse.

Some Gulfstream IVs have the galley right behind the cockpit, while others have it in the aft portion of the pressure vessel. That location seems to affect the physical input necessary for a proper secondary flare. Also, you don’t want to waste so much time trying to finesse the touchdown that you land outside the touchdown zone. This is a larger airplane and it will eat up runway quickly if you let it float endlessly seeking that feather-smooth touchdown.

I also worry because the nosegear is only locked a fraction of an inch over center. I’m sure it’s more than sufficient for the job, but it’s one of those tidbits from ground school which I wrote in my notebook with a big exclamation mark next to it. Everything on these jets costs big money. The brakes alone cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace. Each.

My writing is probably far less interesting to many of you than the photos I post, so I’ll conclude by offering up a few photographic highlights from the year. Thanks for being part of the journey, and may 2012 bring happiness and good health to both us and this crazy industry of ours!

Married!

Hello there. Yeah — you. The one who thought I was MIA/AWOL/just plain dead.

I will be the first to admit that I’ve been remiss in keeping my site up to date. As a former professional web developer, the kiss of death for any site in my bookmark list was always when a site was no longer updated on a timely basis. Sort of the way this one has been of late. After all, why should I pay more attention to a site than the owner does?

So who knows what sort of readership I still have left for the House of Rapp — if any.

In my defense, however, I’ve got a great excuse. I went from being unattached to dating to engaged to married in a little over a year. If you know anything about me, you’ll know I’m very methodical about important matters, and this sort of thing is uncharacteristic, to say the least. However, it’s definitely the best thing that’s ever happened, too.

My fiancee — er, I mean “wife” (I’m still getting used to that!) — and I just returned from a fantastic ten day honeymoon in Hawaii. My only experience with the 50th state had come from a few visits I’d made to Honolulu when I was a kid. And Kristi had never been to Hawaii at all. I explained that Honolulu was basically a major metropolitan area and might not impart the romantic solitude we were seeking. So we ended up honeymooning on Maui, and what a great decision that was! Not nearly as sleepy as Kauai, but far less urban than Oahu.

Anyway, the past months have involved working, planning a destination wedding in San Luis Obispo, registering, the honeymoon, and of course the process of combining two households. My routine has been anything but normal, so finding time to write has been scarce. I aim to change that, however.

OK, you’re probably here because of an interest in aviation. So, on the flying front, I’m still flying King Airs for Dynamic Aviation. For the past 18 months or so, there really hasn’t been any movement in the pilot ranks. No upgrades, no new hires. But over the past few weeks we’ve had three upgrades, an announcement of a new base manager, and other developments.

I’m not sure this portends any sort of upswing in the overall aviation sector, however. These are mainly replacements for existing King Air captains who are moving on to other bases or jobs within the company. Nobody I’m aware of is being hired by airlines, fractionals, or charters. In fact, Netjets, the 500 pound gorilla of the Subpart K world, just announced it was laying off about 500 pilots. So the pain continues. The Netjets news was particularly disheartening to me, because flying for them is my ultimate career goal.

Aerobatic competition has been nil for the past year. Sad, but with the move to the Advanced category, I really don’t feel good about just jumping into things. I want to ensure I can fly the sequences safely and be competitive. Do it right or don’t do it at all. That’s my philosophy. I’ve done some judging, coaching, and instruction, just not much competing.

The RV transition training has been picking up nicely. I think I’m starting to get a stronger reputation as a Socal guy that knows RVs. The next step is really for me to get a side-by-side model — probably an RV-6 — that I can use for transitions. The problem with using the student’s aircraft is that often it’s not available. It either hasn’t been purchased, or the builder hasn’t made the first flight yet. I’ve started to delve into what’s required for an FAA training exemption so that I can hire the aircraft out for these flights. Without that exemption, it is not permissible to rent an Experimental airplane.

So that’s the story. Thanks for sticking with me and being patient. I’ll leave you with a link to a web site I created for the wedding. It’s got quite a few photos, stories, and other stuff on there. Our wedding was aviation-themed, so you’ll at least want to get a look at the photo of the cake.

The Big 34

I just put up some captioned photos from my birthday party.  I was gonna write a big thing about it, but photos are far more interesting aren’t they?

I will say that when you have birthdays like this one, it almost makes getting older something to look forward to!  A small group of close friends laughing the night away.  Perfect.

The timing was ideal, because Italian Girl in Algiers was in a rather stressful stage at the time.  We were quite short on rehearsal time and about to launch into tech week feeling unprepared.  As it turns out, the production is great and the preview audience loved it.  That eased the stress considerably for tonight’s opening.

Anyway, back to the party.  Paul put together a great spread of food from the Austin Rib Co.   I love that place.  Not only is it a true mom-and-pop joint, but the grub is out-of-this-world good.  Not good for you, of course.  But then, what fun would that be?  Austin Rib Co. is located in a non-descript shopping center in Orange, a hole in the wall eatery you’d never know about unless someone tipped you off.

Lesley has always made me a cake on my birthday, and somehow she manages to outdo herself every year.  This year’s was no exception.  I managed to pry out how long it took to make the cake, and it was measured in days.  I’m not the only who thinks she ought to be working as a connoseur of fine desserts at some high end establishment.  Girl’s got mad skills, I tell ya.

After everyone else had gone home, Paul and I decided to play a few hands of poker.  Those of you who play Texas Hold’em are undoubtedly smirking, knowing that there is no such thing as “just a few hands” in this game.  We finished around 3 a.m. and I drove home $20 richer.  Woo hoo!

Little did I know that my aunt Norma was going to pass away that day from pancreatic cancer.  In fact, I didn’t even know she was sick.  Until a few days before, she didn’t know she was sick either.  Apparently Norma contracted what the doctors diagnosed as pneumonia.  Two days later, a different physician figured out that what first appeared to be fluid in her lungs was actually end stage cancer.  She died on January 14th — the same day as my mother, 27 years earlier.

The speed with which her illness progressed is shocking, because she seemed to be in such good health right up to the end.  Yet it’s also a blessing, as she was spared the long and painful denoumont so many cancer victims endure.

What can you take away from something like that, except the obvious?  Life is short, my friends.  Get out there and live each day like it’s your last. 

Plastic Airliners

A post over at Cockpit Conversation got me thinking about the 787 Dreamliner, a new all-composite airliner from Boeing.

That post referenced a British newspaper article whose title was a bit sensationalistic.  “Passenger aircraft rivals clash over safety of fuselage built from plastic”. 

Airplanes are not built out of plastic, they’re made of carbon fiber.  The two are both composite materials, yet interchanging them would be like saying a metal airplane was going to be made out of tin.

The article also states that the Dreamliner will be the first “passenger jet” made entirely of composites, which is untrue.  Smaller passenger jets are already made of composites.  The Raytheon Premier, for example.  The Hawker 4000. The Eclipse 500. The Citation Mustang. The Adam A700. And GA aircraft have been made wholly out of composites from the 1970s (witness the Varieze).  Many modern airframes are all-composite (Cirrus, DiamondStar, etc).  The 787 may be the first large airliner to be built mostly of composites, but the material and methods have been tried and tested for a long time.

Composites are also insanely strong.  I fly aerobatic airplanes that you can put 10 Gs on — an frankly they’ll take twice that without blinking.  You stress them that way over and over again.  A very hard life for a wing.  What’s it made out of?  Yeah.  Composites. The parts that tend to break are the metal ones (formers, stringers, etc) that you cannot see.  Which is Airbus’ whole arguement against composites.

No material is perfect.  Everything is a compromise.  But I’d have no problem flying (or flying on) a 787.