A Week in St. Thomas

Magen's Bay

Well, file this one in the “it’s a small world” category. After several grueling days of relaxation on St. Maarten, your trusty correspondent flew home to Southern California on Thanksgiving, arriving just in the nick of time for a late turkey dinner.

I was home about 36 hours before departing following morning for a week’s vacation on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. For those of you who are keeping track, St. Maarten and St. Thomas are about 90 miles apart, but rather than just fly a short inter-island hop I managed to put about 7,000 miles behind me only to end up right where I started.

Flying is like that.

Anyway, unlike most other trips, this one was a long-planned vacation with extended family — 10 of us in all — to celebrate my brother’s 70th birthday. Yes, you read that right, I have a 70 year old brother. As Tom Hanks so succinctly explains in You’ve Got Mail: “we are an American family”.

Aside from my a nasty cold my wife picked up from her nieces on Thanksgiving, we had a lovely time. Poor Kristi was stuck in the hotel room for the first three of our seven days, but we were continually thankful that it was just a minor illness. Between the heat, humidity, jet lag, mosquitoes, and other facets of a long-distance tropical vacation, it’s not hard to imagine a serious gastrointestinal or sun stroke problem out there. I’ve seen it happen.

Speaking of which, though I wouldn’t bat an eye at flying half way across the world, I nearly came to grief trying to drive a car on that little island. In the Virgin Islands you drive on the left side of the road, but the automobiles have the steering wheel on the left side as well. Add in a general lack of signage, narrow streets, and terrain hilly enough to make even a San Franciscan take notice, and you’ll get an idea of what I was dealing with. Pilots like to joke about the drive being far more dangerous than the flight, but in this case it was 100% true.

St. Thomas is a delightful way to do the Caribbean thing. To begin with, as an American territory, the usual travel hassles are eliminated. They use the same voltage, currency, language, and customs we have here in the mainland. The beaches and resorts are first rate. I can’t say enough good things about the Frenchman’s Reef, Cove, and Morningstar Beach. It was a first class experience even by Marriott standards.

And as a lover of history, there’s no shortage of things to do and see around the island. Columbus landed there on his second voyage to the New World, and a century later the Jamestown settlers stopped at St. Thomas on their way to America as well. Sir Francis Drake used one of the island’s high hills to spy on enemy ships of the Spanish fleet passing through what is now called Drake’s Passage. There are fortresses, submerged artillery, and the 2nd oldest synagogue in the English-speaking world.

Here are just a few images from the trip.

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!

Independence Day from the Air

4July2011_055

Kristi and I recently returned from a trip to Boise for my niece’s bat mitzvah. As this event took place over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, we had the pleasure of experiencing fireworks they way they do them in the great state of Idaho.

You might think fireworks are fireworks, but it ain’t necessarily so. When I was a little kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley, we were able to purchase fireworks from a variety of places and set them off in the street. At some point, most fireworks sales to the public were outlawed — something about kids inadvertently losing fingers and eyes, I think. The nanny state strikes again.

Today in most parts of Orange County, you can neither purchase fireworks or legally set them off. I can understand this restriction in the area where we live, because our home rests up against a mountain and the area is prone to forest fires. In fact, the 2007 Santiago fire almost burned down the whole neighborhood. As a result, fireworks are more or less limited to professionally designed and executed displays sponsored by cities and towns around southern California.

In Boise, on the other hand, there are far fewer professional fireworks shows. Instead, denizens of the town can purchase fireworks — legal and not-so-legal — and put on their own shows out in the street. It probably doesn’t hurt that a big pyrotechnics factory is located near Boise. I’ve never seen Kristi so excited as when she realized there were fireworks stands on every street corner!

We spent the evening of the 4th with people who really love things that explode. I heard estimates of well over $1,000 spent on Roman candles, bottle rockets, bursts, fire flowers, sparklers, and some of the largest mortars I’ve ever seen on a city street. The firecrackers may not have been quite as large as what the professionals launch, but we were only 20 feet away from where these were being lit, so the effect was greatly magnified.

By the end of the evening there was so much firework detritus on the ground that one could hardly see the surface of the street. I feel for whoever had to clean all that up the next day.

Back home, I don’t mind the lack of publicly-available fireworks because the pros do such a bang-up job. It’s also safer. The only downside is that I don’t like crowds, and nothing causes people to congregate like a pyrotechnic show.

Anyway, on any given 4th of July, you’ll see dozens of major fireworks displays all across the Los Angeles basin. The best way to experience these shows is, of course, from an aircraft. In the days when I owned a Skylane, I’d take friends up on the 4th of July and we’d cruise up and down the coast at 1,500′ at around 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. Instead of seeing one fireworks show, we’d see them all. And if any scofflaws were setting off fireworks on the streets below, we’d see those as well.

The Skylane was particularly well-suited for this sort of thing, because with the wing located above the fuselage instead of below it, you’d have unlimited ground visibility. It was able to fly slowly (I used 60 knots with full flaps), quietly, and with the windows wide open we could sometimes even hear the explosions over the sounds of the wind and engine. Nothing says “America!” quite like fireworks and aviation.

I always try to capture firework on “film” but rarely succeed in producing anything worthwhile. You probably know what I mean. Point-and-shoot cameras combined with rapid motion and low-light don’t exactly result in crystal clear photographs. With the inherent delay built into the shutter button on most non-SLR digital cameras, it’s a crap shoot.

Thankfully, I have something better than a good camera: a good friend who has a good camera and knows how to use it. Dean Siracusa generously allowed me to post a few photos he took from his own aircraft, a rare Meyers 200, while doing the 4th of July aviator-style.

Went with two friends went for a flight over Los Angeles last night to see the fireworks. Lots of fun!

Surprisingly, even the professional fireworks do not go very high. I’m guessing that they went no higher than 600 feet. We stayed at 1500 feet and had an amazing view. It’s hard to see from these pictures but there were fireworks going off throughout the entire Los Angeles basin. Amazing!

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.

Mazel Tov

There’s a rueful old saying which reminds us that while you can pick your friends, you can’t pick your family. Although that’s generally true, a wedding tends to puts the kibosh on that logic. In modern society, at least, you certainly can pick your spouse. And that’s exactly what my nephew Mike did yesterday.

I’ve been to many Jewish weddings, but this was my first orthodox ceremony, and I have to say it was one of the livliest and most joyful marriages I’ve witnessed. There’s something wonderful about five thousand years of history that hangs over the chupah without holding the procedings down, a criticism I’ve had of large Christian weddings where the ceremony can become so theatrical that you almost feel the “fourth wall” appear in front of you.

It was a smallish affair — about 70 guests and a minimalistic wedding party, which was refreshing. When there are 200 people on the guest list it makes you want to run away screaming. (Don’t ask how I know that.)

The ceremony was officiated by two rabbis, one of whom came all the way from Israel. He also dances like the revival of Fiddler on the Roof is holding open auditions and he, in the words of A Chorus Line, “really needs this job”. But that’s another story.

There are a dozen little traditions that make Jewish weddings special, like mikveh (ceremonial cleansing), signing of the ketubah, reading of the seven blessings, and of course the crushing of the glass by the groom at the end of the ceremony, symbolizing the last time he’ll ever put his foot down.

One of the neatest traditions is yichud, a few minutes of private time for the newly married couple between the ceremony and reception. Such a simple thing, but undoubtedly welcome by the bride and groom who are always being pulled in different directions and have little time to themselves on their wedding day.

Anyway, the Rapp family is a relatively small one, so it was cool to see it get a little bigger last night. It was also sad to look around and realize how infrequently I see my family, especially when many of them live in the Southern California area. Of course, as anyone who lives down there can tell you, between traffic and the other complexities of Socal life, it can almost be easier to travel out of state than across the Los Angeles basin.

Tomorrow I’m planning to meet up with OP alumni Tim Proctor. All I know is that he’s living in an apartment that, he claims, is made purely of concrete. Only in the northwest…