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!

Bird Strike

As I mentioned in my last post, some captain upgrades and new hires are finally appearing at Dynamic.

For the past year and a half, things had been completely static. I was one of the last people to upgrade to the left seat, and those who were stuck as first officers eventually started to get discouraged. It’s hard to blame them. They work extremely hard for $11 an hour (yeah, you read that right) day in and day out. Thankfully, for those who stuck around, their patience has begun to pay off. And for those who haven’t upgraded yet, at least they see some light at the end of the tunnel.

The down side to this is that I have lost some of my favorite first officers. I’m glad they’ve upgraded, but today I started to realize how much I’d come to rely on their experience, not to mention the fun factor of flying with them. Then again, I get to play a part in the training of some upcoming pilots, and that’s pretty neat too.

Today I was flying with one of the “new guys”. It was an atypical day because I clocked in at 6:00 a.m. I normally get an early start, but not THAT early. We were cranking at that hour because a ceremony would be taking place later in the day to honor a soldier whose body was being returned home from Afghanistan. During the ceremony, which was to occur in the middle of our work day, the base would be on “quiet hours”, meaning no aircraft operations were permitted.

My first officer and I had taxied out to the runway for our second flight. We lined up, completed our final checks, set power, and released the brakes. Everything was normal for a few seconds. Then, as we accelerated down the runway, a very large hawk came into view. He was sitting in the middle of the runway with his back to us, wings folded majestically. He didn’t seem to be doing anything special, just sitting there.

My FO (who has only a few flights under his belt in the BE90) asked if he should abort. I said no. My feeling about birds is that they generally get out of the way. Those that don’t are not going to be avoided by maneuvering, especially in something the size of a King Air. It’s akin to a scuba diver trying to out-swim a sea lion under water. We move at a comparatively glacial pace, and if they want to avoid us, they can jink and jank in ways we can only dream of.

And in this case, I don’t think we could have stopped in time anyway, even with full reverse and hard braking. I’d rather hit the bird than try and steer around it in a 10,000 lb. King Air and end up veering off the runway.

We seem to hit birds fairly frequently at Los Alamitos. The base — along with the adjacent Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station — is some of the last open space in the area, and it attracts a lot of wildlife. Now as to why the wildlife that flies seems to enjoy hanging out around the runway, you got me.

So as I mentioned, the hawk was sitting on the runway centerline with his back to us. I’m sure he knew we were coming. A King Air with the props turning at 2200 RPM is pretty loud. Plus we have two alternating flashing landing lights on each wingtip and another one on the nose gear. In fact, I know the bird saw us coming, because he actually turned his head 90 degrees and looked at us as we approached!

By now you’ve probably guessed the hawk elected to make a stand against the five-ton turboprop, and in the words of the Knight Templar, he chose… poorly. We heard a distinctive thump as the half of the hawk which wasn’t left on the runway hit the right main landing gear leg.

We rotated, the FO called for gear retraction, and I selected… nothing. The gear handle wouldn’t move. So I pushed the downlock override, selected gear up, and was rewarded with red lights, warning horn, and no gear movement. Mmm-hmmm. I lowered the gear handle and immediately got three green lights. Down and locked.

Remembering rule #1 (always fly the plane), I elected to monitor the FO as he flew and ignore the gear until we could get to a higher altitude. Once off the coast, I briefed the FO: he would focus on flying the airplane and look for traffic; I would troubleshoot the gear and handle the radios.

There were no indications of blown circuit breakers or other failures. No reason to pump the gear manually, it was already down. There is a checklist for failure to extend, but nothing for a failure to retract. I suspected that the bird strike had done something to the squat switch, because the aircraft was reacting like I had raised the landing gear lever with the plane sitting on the ground.

I called our maintenance shop and after a few queries, they said that if it was definitely down and locked, leave it that way and return. So that’s what we did. I elected to make a fly-by of the tower just to have them look at that right gear leg and see if there was any obvious sign of damage, flat tire, or other abnormality. They didn’t see anything amiss, so we returned and landed uneventfully. Well, aside from the trail of emergency vehicles which followed us to the ramp.

We moved our load to another aircraft and had an uneventful flight. At the end of the day, I got with the mechanic who put our broken bird up on jacks, and what they found was that the hawk had bent part of the squat switch — a device which detects when the airplane’s weight comes off the wheels — in such a way that it was locked in place and always thought the plane was on the ground. An easy fix. And they also found the hawk on the runway. Or should I say, half of it. Apparently our prop cut the bird cleanly in half.

What I learned today (or should I say, re-learned) is that rule #1 really works. Fly the airplane, no matter what. When something goes wrong, there’s often an irresistible urge to do something, fix something, check for that breaker, try the gear retraction juuuuust one more time. In a busy terminal area when you’re low to the ground with the extra drag of the landing gear reducing your climb rate and a brand new low-time first officer flying the airplane, the best course of action is frequently to ignore the problem and just fly.

A Day at Medfly

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Aviation is a fascinating, almost secret world. To those on the outside, it basically consists of airliners and… uh, more airliners, I guess.

When people learn that I’m a professional pilot, they invariably ask which airline I fly for. When I tell them I don’t fly for an airline, they say “ohhh” in that sad empathetic tone reserved for downtrodden, second class citizens.

Little do they know there’s an entire world of flying out there, much of which does not involve an endless series of occupied gates, surly passengers, overcrowded airports, corporate mergers, pay cuts, bankruptcies, and nights spent away from home.

One of the things I’m most frequently asked about by those who dig a little deeper into my flying career is my work for the “Medfly program” here in Southern California. What is it? Why is it needed? And what the heck is a Medfly, anyway?

The short version: the program is a cooperative effort between the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to control the Mediterranean Fruit Fly population here in the state.

Medflies are not native to the state of California. On the contrary, they are highly destructive to more than 400 varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other crops. Keep in mind that agriculture is California’s largest industry and California is by far the largest economic engine in the country, and you can understand how these little insects could cause some serious damage. I’ve heard that our program, which costs about $25 million per year, saves more than a billion dollars in crop damage.

In the early 80’s, the Medfly problem even cost the state’s governor his job. Medfly eradication in those days was done with malathion, a controversial pesticide which was sprayed over populated areas by a fleet of helicopters. Then-Governor Jerry Brown claimed the pesticide was not harmful, but the public was skeptical, and at the very least, it damaged the finish on cars left outside during spraying operations.

Rather than run for a third term, Governor Brown ran for U.S. Senate but was defeated by Pete Wilson, in part due to extremely poor public opinion of the way he handled the Medfly outbreak.

Most people who lived in southern California during that period assume I must be spraying malathion, but that practice ended a long time ago. Today, we use a non-pesticide method called the “sterilized insect technique”. Basically, male flies are raised in captivity and irradiated to sterilize them. Then they are released from aircraft, and these sterile males mix with any wild female population. Their attempts to breed are futile, and without any reproductive capability, that generation of flies dies off. The program releases flies in the southern California area as a preventative measure even when there are no major outbreaks.

One of the earliest questions I had about the program was why it was necessary here in the L.A. basin. There’s very little agriculture left in this area due to the high population density. Wouldn’t it be better to drop flies in the San Joaquin Valley where most of the farms are located? I was told that although there’s little agriculture in the Los Angeles basin, there are a lot of immigrants and cargo coming into California via the roads, ships, and airports, and that’s how most of the wild Medflies find their way into our fair state. It’s also why there are agricultural inspection stations on the way into California.

If you’d like to read the California Department of Food & Agriculture’s official explanation of the program, they have a detailed breakdown of how it all works on their web site. Rather than re-hash that, I’ll give you a photographic look at the program from a pilot’s perspective.

By the way, I should note that I don’t work for the CDFA. I work for a company called Dynamic Aviation, which is contracted by CDFA to handle the actual flying. The pilots, mechanics, and aircraft are Dynamic assets. It’s a fascinating company to work for, but I’ll save the company details for a future post.

OK, here we go! The day starts at 4:45 a.m. Yes, you read that right. I get up, take a shower, eat breakfast, make a brown bag lunch, check weather, and head out the door by 6:00 a.m. But when that alarm goes off at 4:45, I always wonder what the hell I’m doing up at that hour.

It used to be a lot harder to work this schedule when I was also singing for Opera Pacific. Every now and then I’d have a rehearsal or performance the night before which wouldn’t allow me to get to bed before midnight at the earliest, and then have to get up at 4:45 the next morning. Ugh.

medfly_2008_18

I don’t have any photos from the next thing, but I arrived on base at about 6:30 a.m. to start the dispatching tasks for the day: checking & printing weather, issuing flight assignments, coordinating with the CDFA personnel, filing flight plans, and basically doing a lot of paperwork. That’s the one constant in aviation: paperwork.

After that, I proceed to the flight line and join the other guys in performing the kind of mundane task you don’t see in Top Gun: washing an aircraft. Everyone pitches in, pilots, mechanics, etc. I don’t mind it, because it’s a chance to watch the sun rise, joke around with the other crews, and stretch out a bit before the 6-7 hours of flying which follow. Hours of sitting in a seat fairly motionless, I might add:

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After the wash, the aircraft is towed back to the flight line and the crews start pre-flighting their aircraft. We typically send out four or five aircraft per day. Each aircraft will fly two or three flights totaling five to seven hours of flight time. So that’s 25-35 hours of flying for our fleet each day, and we do it seven days a week.

This is Tim, my first officer for the day, doing the towing duties. Like many of the pilots at Dynamic, Tim is also an A&P mechanic, meaning he can fix the planes as well as break them. I can only break them… but in my defense, I do it very well. :)

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We operate out of a military base which sits on some prime real estate near the ocean right on the border between L.A. and Orange counties. It’s a “Joint Forces Training Base”, whatever that means. We just call it “Los Alamitos”.

For a military airfield, it has remarkably little flying activity. There are some helicopters based here, and occasionally the President, F-18s, or other aircraft will fly in for a while. Sometimes a civilian 737 will fly in to drop of soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. During the annual fire season, military Blackhawks are sometimes pressed into service to fight the fires.

But for the most part, we are the main users of the base’s runways. In 800 hours of flying off this air base, I’ve yet to see another non-Dynamic aircraft taxiing at the same time as me anywhere on the airfield.

Here’s a pair of T-45A Goshawk jets near the wash rack:

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Within about 15 minutes, our aircraft is prepared for departure. Fuel and oil checked, chocks and covers removed, dispersal equipment checked, cockpit setup complete, and we’re hooked up to an external generator to keep the refrigeration equipment cold. The flies are kept at about 40 degrees so that they don’t try to escape from the box. At this point, we’re just waiting for the CDFA personnel to arrive with our cargo.

You’ll notice the interior has been stripped out of this aircraft. These airplanes are ex-military U-21A turboprops — basically an unpressurized King Air 90. The passenger seats are replaced with a refrigeration and auger system used to distribute the flies. We also have upgraded avionics, wig-wag landing lights, traffic detection systems, and other modifications.

The “Restricted” placard indicates that this aircraft is certified in the Restricted category (due to our installing non-aviation equipment) and cannot be used to carry passengers or non-essential personnel.

In these photos we have the cargo door open and are waiting for our load. Notice the fly chutes hanging down from the belly of the aircraft in the second photo. Also, note the power cord which is providing electricity to the refrigeration unit.

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Here the CDFA guys have arrived with our box. This thing contains several million flies. The sterilized ones we drop have an orange dye on them for ease of identification when they show up in the little fly traps placed around Southern California. We load the box, fill out some paperwork to confirm the load weight and the regions we’re headed to, as well as an ETA for our second flight, close the door, run some checklists, and off we go!

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According to my watch in the photo below, it’s about 9:45 a.m. and we’ve probably been in the air for about an hour and forty-five minutes. The fuel panel shows the tanks are still fairly full. I don’t know why I took this picture, except perhaps to show some part of the aircraft for a reason I’ve long since forgotten.

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Here’s the front office. The panel is fairly standard, with flight instruments in front, two rows of engine gauges to the right of them. And in the center a stack of Garmin radios. We have two transponders, so as per Murphy’s Law, we will never, EVER have a transponder failure.

The equipment which probably looks most foreign to the pilots among you are the camera and the red LED-thingie above the annunciator panel. The camera is so we don’t miss any breaking news from CNN about new TFRs. And the LEDs are for the laser light show which accompanies the flying music on our iPods.

Um, or not. Actually, the camera allows is to verify that flies are actually dropping from the aircraft. The light bar on top of the glareshield is part of the AGNAV system. This system was originally designed for cropdusting. It indicates how far off the desired flight path we are at any given moment.

In the photo below, it indicates our ground track is 181 degrees true, and that we’re 64 feet to the right of the course centerline. The LEDs in the middle are a form of Course Deviation Indicator. Cropdusters need this because they can’t be looking down at a computer screen when they’re flying 10′ off the ground.

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Here’s a wider photo of the entire panel, which I undoubtedly took on my way back from the ‘loo. Yeah, if only. We don’t have a bathroom onboard this aircraft. I was probably checking the fly box to get an idea of how much longer we’d be in the region dropping flies.

Anyway, the light bar now indicates we’re flying a true ground track of 3 degrees and are 41 feet right of the desired course line.

We are required to keep the aircraft within 150′ of the course line, 100′ of the desired altitude, and maintain 140 knots indicated airspeed +0/-5 knots. That’s not hard to do… for a while. But try doing it when you’ve been in the air for seven hours already. Fatigue? Yeah, it gets tiring.

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Thankfully, we have two pilots on board and can switch off. That’s not to say the PNF (pilot-not-flying) can just sit around. The PNF has to operate the radios, scan for traffic, operate the dispersal equipment, monitor the pilot who is doing the flying, and do the required paperwork for each pass.

Here Tim is flying the aircraft while I’m… well, apparently taking a photograph. Keep in mind most of our operations take place in the Los Angeles basin, the most highly congested airspace in the world. We operate close to terrain, at low altitudes under the LAX localizer, and in all sorts of odd places you don’t normally find airplanes. We need to do that to ensure a proper coverage of medflies. I believe we drop them at the rate of something like 32,500 flies per linear mile.

The system works well, but it does require a high level of vigilance from the pilots. The Los Angeles airspace was not designed to accommodate our kind of flying, but what we do is important enough that the controllers have maps of our regions and we have an excellent working relationship with them, often operating in Bravo airspace where other aircraft would not be allowed entry.

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When we reach the end of a line (or “pass”, as we call it), we reverse course and fly the next line according to the data provided by the CDFA. Most of our regions are flown on north/south or east/west courses, but occasionally terrain will dictate an oddball course, such as out by Lake Elsinore.

Anyway, here we are in the middle of a right turn. Notice the attitude indicator, which shows about a 50 degree bank. Pretty steep for a King Air. We are allowed up to 60 degrees of bank by company policy. It’s hard on the airplanes, and they’re old. And we fly in heavy turbulence at times. So the aircraft get frequent spar inspections.

I don’t know the details, but General Electric apparently has a division that does this type of inspection using some high tech equipment. I’ve seen the van come out and do something to the airplanes, but I’ve never paid enough attention to really know all the details. However, I take comfort in knowing that the same mechanics who turn wrenches on these aircraft also fly them.

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Well, after a couple of hours on station, I go back and check the fly box to see what’s left. In this photo you can just see some residual flies clinging to the side of the box. They don’t fly around — remember, it’s 40 degrees in that box. They just sit there, even when the box is opened up. Looks like we’re out of flies, so it’s time to head back to base to refuel, take a 20 minute lunch break, and then do it all over again.

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At the end of the day, the aircraft has to be refueled, post-flight inspection completed, cockpit secured, the augers cleaned out, paperwork completed, and more. When we’re done, the ramp looks neat and tidy:

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It’s worth noting that not everyone at Dynamic gets to fly every day. There are two types of pilots: those who are mechanics, and those who aren’t. I’m a part-time, non-A&P captain, which means I fly all the time I’m there. Full-time mechanic/pilots split their work week, half the time in the air, and half on the ground doing maintenance work on the fleet:

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Anyway, we’re pretty much done with work by 4:00 p.m. or so. Sometimes bad weather will cause us to work later than scheduled and we won’t get out of there until 5:00 or so, but that’s a rarity. We clock out, and voilia! The day is done.