Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Little Remos

I remember vividly the day I was able to take the keys to an airplane home with me for the first time. April 5, 2012 was one of the best days of my life, even though the airplane wasn't mine. Holding the keys allowed me to convincingly retreat into the illusion.

New Mexico Sport Aviation was a small, one airplane business back then, less than a year old. The owner, Michael, preferred to run things more like a flying club than a rental operation, which meant anyone checked out on his airplane received a key for it.

I received my signoff that morning after spending four years largely earthbound since earning my sport pilot ticket in April 2008. The airplane, a two-year-old Remos GX, was the only light sport aircraft available for rent in the entire state of New Mexico; fortunate, then, that it was based at the Santa Fe Municipal Airport, only an hour's drive from my home in Albuquerque.

Over the next three years, I would spend 72.7 hours at the controls of N28GX - the most time I have in any one aircraft, and fully one-third of my total flying time so far. Less than a month after my checkout, my friend and former CFI Jim Crone - the man who helped me earn my SP ticket in Florida - flew with me in N28GX to Albuquerque for my checkout flight in Class C airspace; soon after, I flew as PIC with a non-pilot passenger (my Mom, shown below) for the first time, when we took a trip out to Cabezon Peak and back.

Mom with N28GX following our first flight together. June 24, 2012
In all, I would fly with Mom and 10 other people in N28GX. It was also the airplane in which two more of my friends would fly their first solos, and ultimately earn their tickets. Most flights were short affairs around the pattern at SAF, or to the practice area near Cochiti Lake, but I also accumulated seat time traveling on short trips across northern New Mexico, out to Moriarty (0E0), Las Vegas (LVS), Double Eagle II (AEG), and Los Alamos (LAM).

My friend Char takes a short trip with me from Santa Fe to Double Eagle II in N28GX
In my enthusiasm for having a plane to fly once again, I even created a Facebook page (separate from the NMSA page) devoted solely to N28GX. I was at the controls when its Hobbs meter turned over to 1000 hours, as I flew with a student pilot up to a WINGS event in Raton. Later that day, it would miraculously allow me to make a decent landing back at Santa Fe in a crosswind gusting to 31 knots - more than twice the rated component for a Remos - after I had foolishly decided to depart RTN in marginal conditions, rather than waiting overnight for more favorable weather. Truth is, I'd just barely managed to avoid scraping a wingtip on takeoff from Raton.

Me and Jim, after my Class C airspace checkout. May 1, 2012
After that enlightening experience - and thanks to the valuable lesson it provided - over time I became a better and more capable pilot at the controls of N28GX. When Michael added a second Remos to the fleet in late 2013, it was hard for me not to view that aircraft (N78GX, later rechristened N831RC to avoid the confusion of having two, "eight-gulf-x-rays" flying in the SAF traffic pattern) as something of an interloper.

The "other" Remos, safe in the hangar at Francis Aviation in Santa Teresa, NM. April 2014
For some reason - even after I learned to appreciate 78's slight speed advantage, and its autopilot, on a three-hour trip down to Santa Teresa (5T6) - it never held the same place in my heart as its sibling, for which more than once I'd driven up to Santa Fe and wiped down its fuselage and wing for the next renter, just so I could spend some time in the hangar with the plane I had christened, "my little Remos."

After a comparative flurry of activity over those first three years, I didn't fly as much in 2015. Mostly that was due to my freelance writing career evolving into a genuine job, rather than a neat hobby that I'm able to make some money at. Family commitments also made it more difficult to find the time necessary to drive to Santa Fe and back, and spend any appreciable time in the air.

I also lost some enthusiasm for flying after the passing of my friend, Ray, in February 2015. Ray was my flying buddy, the one who could always convince me to drag myself away from the computer and take a ride around the traffic pattern. Although he'd soloed in N28GX back in November 2012 (below), Ray had always liked the other Remos a little more, which made it fitting that it would ultimately have his initials on it...  if only by coincidence, not design.

Ray, holding his post-solo "shirttail." Nov. 15, 2012

The last time I flew N28GX was back in October 2015, when I took it around the pattern at Santa Fe for what would be our last time together. Once back at the hangar after an hour of irritating ATC instructions and vectors away from the airport, I patted the IP combing of my little Remos, and thanked it for once again helping me to look like I knew what I was doing in the sky. "That was quite an adventure, wasn't it?"

My last photo of N28GX. October 24, 2015
On March 11, 2016 - at this writing, just a bit more than 24 hours ago - N28GX crashed near the runway at Ohkay Owingeh Airport (E14) in Espanola, about 25 miles north of Santa Fe. The two persons onboard - a mother of two who'd recently earned her certificate, and the former president of the local EAA chapter - perished.

Photo by Wheeler Cowperthwaite, Rio Grande Sun
Of course the worst part of this is the human loss. Of course my main concern is with the families of those victims as they grieve for their loved ones. And, of course, I also feel terribly for Michael, as he must cope with the range of emotions, the terrible conversations with the families and discussions with investigators in the days and months ahead, and whatever decisions he may have to make in the aftermath.

Mostly, though, I've spent last night and today alternating between numbness and tears, because my little Remos will never fly again. I'll never be able to use my key again.

I feel guilty for that; selfish and petty for crying over a fallen aircraft - a mere inanimate object - over mourning the lives of the souls who fell with her. And yet a single, horrible, stubbornly persistent thought echoes relentlessly in my mind.

They killed my airplane.

My keys to N28GX.

Counterclockwise from the black-fobbed ignition key is the door lock key; an Our Lady of Loretto medallion given to me by my friend, Jennifer, back in 2004 (which bears the rune "pray for us who fly" that would later becoming very important to me during my cancer fight); a schnauzer keychain that Mom gave me in 2006; and the PILOT streamer given to me by Ray one of the last times I saw him. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

... On 37

A lot can change in two years. The last time I put together a post like this, I was in a decidedly morose state of mind. "The future doesn't feel quite as exciting as I used to believe it to be," I wrote on September 19, 2010 on my 35th birthday, with a self-photo taken at my desk that was all-too reflective of my overall mood.

Things are a bit better today.

As the first full year of what I hope will continue to be a fairly successful freelance writing career nears the end, I'm celebrating my most lucrative month ever. I billed close to $2,000 more in November than in my next-best month, back in February. Freelancing is always a feast-or-famine proposition, and December is usually slow... but I'm happy (and still amazed) to note that even my "worst" month of 2012 still gave me more than what I made at the old office job. I'm also happy to note that I've diversified my client base, with assignments from several new companies and, most notably, Aviation International News.

Even if the Great Freelance Writing Experiment crashes down tomorrow, I'll have no regrets in opting to pursue this full-time. It's incredibly vindicating to be paid for doing something you love doing anyway. I just need to be careful not to burn out.

Unlike the last time I made my living in aviation, though, there are ways for me to enjoy that outside of my job. At this writing - which comes over eight months since my last post, eep - I've also accumulated 26.7 hours as pilot-in-command of Remos N28GX, including a Class C checkout by Jim Crone, my CFI in Florida, who had the time to fly with me while traveling through the Land of Enchantment on his way back home to Seattle.

After that flight on May 1, my first "long" cross-country was from Santa Fe down to Belen (E80) and back. That was also my first trip there since I soloed back in July 2004; it was amazing how familiar it felt to be back in the pattern again, this time without an instructor onboard or even watching me from the ground.

I've also flown down to have breakfast at the Bombing Range Cafe at Double Eagle II (AEG) and I've done three sets of touch-and-goes at the Sunport (ABQ.) I even, finally, made it to Moriarty. I've taken friends (and Mom) out to Cabezon Peak, and I've helped encourage another as he makes his way through flight training. Seeing Ray make his first solo two weeks ago was one of the highlights of my year. I'm looking forward to taking mountain flight training next year.

Being a regular visitor up to SAF has also allowed me to ingratiate myself into the local airport community, as a member (and soon-to-be Secretary) of the Aviation Association of Santa Fe. One of the major tasks ahead is helping to come up with projects to build enthusiasm for the airport in the community - a daunting task, but also a challenge I'm looking forward to, and trying to meet with an open mind.

Another highlight this year was being published in a book published by the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. The compilation "At War At Home: The Cold War" assembled stories about area residents who played a part in forming the nation's post-World War II defense network, as well as those who fought in Korea and Vietnam. My Aunt Peg let us know about the book earlier this year, enough time for me to write a short feature about my Grandpa Darmody and his work with SAC and the ballistic missile program.

It's only one-third of a page, but it matters to us. Mom put it best: it's gratifying to know that even a brief history of her father's contributions is now recorded in a place outside the family. It was also a fitting postscript, as she and I finally made it up to Omaha in August, so we could see the final resting places of my Grammie (below) and my Grandpa Sayers.

This year also witnessed a family move, into a house that - despite many faults and flaws - I could actually see owning someday. It's the first actual house that's been in my name, and while it's a rental for now, and I doubt this would be the one I'd buy... just the fact I'm thinking like that tells me I have a more 'grown-up' outlook on my life than I have had before. I guess that comes from having a family to take care of in the first place.

So, all in all... 2012 has been a pretty good year. I also have precious little to complain about at three months in to my 37th time around the sun. I'm grateful for my live today, in part because I know how fleeting such things can be. There are no guarantees that 2013 or 38 will be as kind, so I have to appreciate it all while I can.

And I am.

Friday, April 20, 2012

'Bout Damn Time!

I've been pretty lax with posting on this site lately, but at least I can honestly say that's been for very good reasons. So, there's that. 

Since February 3rd, I've been making a living solely through my freelance writing. I'm extremely fortunate that, so far, business has been booming. It felt like quite a leap to leave the office life behind once again, particularly when you never know for certain when your next check will come in the mail. Again, I'm very lucky to have a regular, steady client that keeps me busy, while also allowing me some time to pursue other clients, as well as own my personal goals.

About those goals. If you've been following this blog for awhile, you might recall that I earned my Sport Pilot certificate (don't call it a license) back in April 2008. Three months later, I flew a Gobosh 700S (below) from Denver's Centennial Airport (KAPA) to Moline, Illinois (MLI) with stops in Hastings, Nebraska (KHSI) and Shenandoah, Iowa (KSDA.) It was 10 hours and 667 nautical miles of fun, exhaustion and education. Along for the ride was Dave Graham, who at the time was a VP at Gobosh Aviation (he's since moved on to American Legend, hawking very nice Cub clones) and was on his way back home. It was the most substantial chunk of PIC time (for pilot in command) I'd been able to log up to that point; I swore it was only the beginning.

Fast forward to March 2012... and I haven't flown as PIC since that trip. As they say, life gets in the way. For starters, there had been no light sport aircraft to rent anywhere near Albuquerque; the closest plane, an Evektor, was up in Farmington. That was probably for the best, though, since I hardly had any extra money to spend flying anyway.

That situation began to improve last summer, though. I learned that an outfit up at Santa Fe Municipal Airport (KSAF) was offering a Remos GX for training and rentals. By this time the "freelancing gig" was starting to take off, though there were other priorities before I could take the time to start flying again. At this point, I was also convinced I'd need to go through flight training all over again, since it had been so long since I'd flown. I had less than 15 hours since earning my certificate.

By mid-March, however, I'd decided to just go ahead and do it. Recreational flying is not a very practical activity; there's always something better, more necessary, or more practical you need your money to go towards. But it had been too long... and if I didn't take the chance now, I could see a time 10 years from now when I'd wish I had. So, I emailed Michael at New Mexico Sport Aviation, and asked if I could spend some time going over my plan. 

Michael and I met on a Tuesday. He quickly allayed my concerns about how long I'd need to regain currency. A pilot certificate never expires, per se; you just need to remain healthy enough to fly, and pass a biennial flight review. In addition to owning NM Sport Aviation and Remos N28GX, Michael is also a CFI, so he could administer my flight review while also checking me out on his aircraft. We set a timetable: he said it would take three flights, I thought it would be closer to five.

It only took three, and it probably could have been less than that if I'd been more brave. For our first flight, on that same Tuesday, we took the plane out to the practice area southwest of SAF and puttered around the sky for a half-hour or so. My only goal for that flight was to get up in the air again, and become more familiar with the Remos. 

That short flight was more than enough to convince me that I wanted to do more - just not on that day - so we scheduled another flight for the following Thursday. This time, Michael had me demonstrate stalls, slow flight, and emergency procedures, before shooting a series of touch-and-goes at SAF. That was another 1.4 hours in the book... and after we shut down, he said our next meeting could be the flight review. One week later, that review passed without incident, and on April 5th I officially became a pilot again.

Since then, I've taken the Remos up solo for some intensive pattern work - 1.1 hours, 10 takeoffs and landings. I plan to head out to the practice area next week to practice maneuvers, followed by a cross-country down to Moriarty (0E0.) Why? Because although I've been to Moriarty more times than I can count... I've never flown there.

That pretty much brings us up-to-date on things so far. I do plan to start posting here more frequently, and I have a new incentive to do it - my new business website, "Approach Lights" will still be my personal creative outlet, one that I hope might gain a new following through the business site. We shall see! (If you're reading this post after coming here from my other site, please leave a comment and tell me what you think!)

Until next time --


Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Year

I don't remember very much about the first few days of 2011. I guess it started much like other years, with the carryover monotony from the previous December continuing unabated. I recall feeling that the New Year brought with it a few glimmers of hope, mostly due to what few freelance assignments that crossed my path... but overall, I think it's safe to say that my mood and mindset were defined by a definite sense of ennui.

That changed in February, for both better and worse. To the latter point, I lost my beloved Grammie on February 3rd. Her death hit me especially hard because I'd sworn -- I'd promised -- that I would make it up to visit her sometime soon. Both time and my promises ran out at 3 pm that day.

Her loss seemed particularly cruel, because in the week prior I'd received two happy bits of news. One, I had been promoted to a management position at DMC; and, secondly, I was accepted as a regular freelance writer for a major aviation advocacy group. The promotion didn't work out - I had immediately realized the importance of the Peter Principle as it applies to courier companies - but the latter certainly did. Thanks to freelancing, this will go down as by far my most financially and professionally successful year to-date.

So, despite the sad beginning, overall this was a very good year - one that I am happily celebrating here in Atlanta, with my good friend and mentor Pete Combs and his wife, Karen, in their beautiful new home. Tonight I plan to raise a glass to fate, in overall thanks and gratitude to whatever forces control it. I've resolved to expand my nascent "flightwriting" career in 2012, while also promising myself this will be the year I regain (and maintain) currency on the Sport Pilot certificate. Heady challenges, both, but I feel confident I'll be able to take them on.

Still... the sadness remains, for 2011 also brought a harsh postscript. Four days ago, I went to the home of one of our drivers, who hadn't been at work since Christmas Eve. His year hadn't been so kind... and he had decided, sometime over the holiday, that he did not wish to suffer anymore.

While I understand and accept his decision - at the end of the day, I strongly believe we should have such control over our lives, and the decision to end them if we see fit - it was also a sight I wouldn't wish on anyone. I only wish he would have considered the impact to those around him.

That image is what will drive me in 2012, and beyond. Live your life as well as you are able, and appreciate the good times... because often they are all-too-fleeting. Darkness always lurks, looking for the opportunity to strike.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Seconds of December

A time comes for everyone when they realize that they're pretty much the person they will always be for the rest of their life. Their mindset has been determined, their preferences and prejudices largely etched in stone, when they realize they're no longer particularly eager to have their mind changed about anything, and they're unlikely to let anyone new get too close to the life they've created for themselves.

I came to that realization this year, at the relatively tender age of 36. I think I'm okay with that, because I'm reasonably and thankfully content with who I am today. I've had some professional successes this year, that helped me realize some personal goals as well. I endeavor for more - better health, less weight, greater recognition - but I also appreciate that all victories are fleeting, so I'm trying to hold onto what I've been able to muster for as long as I can.

I also realize I've also cast off valuable and important aspects of who I once was along the way. I used to have a much greater sense of whimsy than I do now. I used to have much more faith and compassion for other people than I do today. Make no mistake, I fight vehemently and passionately to defend and care for those closest to me... but that circle has grown far smaller than it once was, with past friends and even some family members cast out. My requirements for access to that circle are far more stringent and jaded than they once were.

It wasn't always like that. There was a time when I gladly -- eagerly -- wore my heart on my sleeve, and believed in the overall decency and competence of others at first blush. This was an incredibly naive world view, as is typical when you're fresh out of high school... and I was fortunate to find someone who was very eager to recognize those qualities, and who embraced them and loved them with all of her might.

Today's her birthday.

You still feel her hand on your cheek as you said those words for the first time
And you still feel the pain from the first realization you'd lied
She was gentle when you wanted rough; so inviting but still not enough
Before too long you gave into your demons and cast the angel aside

I wrote those ridiculously overwrought, post-teen-angst-y sentences around 15 years ago, after I realized it still pained me a bit too much to look at the calendar in early December. I've written here about her before; I'm also pretty sure it was her that I saw in a Dillard's ad while thumbing absent-mindedly through the Dallas Morning News one day in 2006.

Facebook is nothing less than the modern-day equivalent of the biblical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As it was in Genesis, its apples are far too easy to pick; all it takes is a simple word search. For whatever reason, a few months ago I decided to reach out for the forbidden fruit.

Maiden name... no hits. 

Wait. What was the name of the guy she was seeing? Try that...

Oh. Wow.

Married. One son, and another child on the way.

And... a flight attendant for Southwest. I admit that I smiled a bit at that; it would appear she found her calling among the clouds, too. For some reason, that made me very happy.

I briefly considered sending her a message on Facebook. It would have been purely a casual thing, a "hey, I see you're on here, too!" sort of note, the kind of breezy greeting one might send a former classmate. I thought about it... but of course, that would have been a terrible idea. Our moment together was fleeting; her life today is her own, and I have no right or place whatsoever to intrude upon that.

I'm genuinely glad that she appears happy, as well. Everything turned out the way it was destined to... but, there's also a part of my consciousness that recognizes I'm really not as okay with all of this as I should be, 18 years later.

You're sure she's doing well now and you're hardly a thought in the air
Just a midsummer's fling that lasted through spring and time passes when you're not aware
Still you know that you live in her shadow, and you're forever cursed to care
And count all the seconds of December that she's not there

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hallowed Ground

As many of you know, I ventured out to Las Vegas, Nevada this month for NBAA's 2011 Meeting and Convention. It was the first aviation trade show I'd attended since April 2009, and it felt wonderful to be back in that environment and to work with a great news crew once again. I may write a separate post about that a little later, but this is about what happened after the show was over.

The day after NBAA wrapped, I made the brief trip down I-15 to the Enterprise area, to pay homage as best I could to a man I never knew, but whose influence and legacy drives every ambition I have in aviation.

As Robert Darmody boarded a United Airlines DC-7 on the morning of April 21, 1958, I imagine his thoughts were on leaving his family behind in California, as he left to set up their new home in Omaha, NE. A veteran of WWII who after the war worked for 10 years with the Strategic Air Command -- most recently in the Ballistic Missile Division -- Darmody had spent the past year in Los Angeles on special assignment with civilian contractor Ramo-Wooldridge. [He] already had his orders in hand to move back to Omaha later that year. 

...Alas, Darmody -- my maternal grandfather -- and the 46 other people onboard United 736 never made it to their destinations that April morning. At 8:30 am local time, less than an hour after the airliner took off from LAX, an F-100F Super Sabre trainer flying out of Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, NV descended into the path of the passenger plane at 21,000 feet. The jet sheared off a 12-foot section of the DC-7's right wing... and both planes spiraled towards the desert floor, about nine miles south of what is now McCarran International Airport.

What once was a desolate desert landscape with nothing to be seen for miles around, is now filled with strip malls, box stores, and apartment complexes... except, that is, for a patch of arid Mojave landscape northeast of the corner of South Decatur Boulevard and West Cactus Avenue. It is here where the wreckage of UAL 736 fell, though no one passing by would ever know it.

As I step out of my car, I look up and see a Southwest 737 directly overhead, climbing out from McCarran. The apparent dichotomy seems appropriate.

United 736 was on an instrument flight plan, and in contact with air traffic controllers at the time of the accident. The airliner was flying along the Victor 8 airway, a common route for airliners heading east from the Los Angeles basin that also crossed a heavily-used departure and approach corridor to Nellis.

Though unthinkable today, in those times military pilots were neither required, nor inclined, to communicate with commercial air traffic controllers, despite their often close proximity to slower-moving commercial planes. In the days after the accident, two other commercial pilots came forward with accusations US Air Force planes often "stunted" near their aircraft along Victor 8.

It was the very dawn of the Jet Age. Everyone was still learning.

I made two trips to the site that day. The first was by myself; the second time, I was accompanied by Keith Gordon, Director of Aviation for Desert Jet based at Henderson Executive Airport. By luck or providence, I interviewed Keith for one of my first articles this year for NBAA; as it turned out, he's a local aviation buff, as well as an avid geocacher. It was his idea to place a small 'cache' at the crash site, for other explorers to find and learn a little bit about an event that's been almost entirely lost to the history books.

There's more than a little Cold War-intrigue surrounding the crash of United 736. Mark Paris has worked on a book about the mishap for several years. He lost his father, Steve, in the crash; like my grandfather, Steve Paris was returning to Omaha, home to Strategic Air Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base.

Paris told the Review-Journal his father was one of the 13 men onboard the flight who were associated with the Ballistic Missile Division, tasked with developing "the most top secret project in the country at the time.

"This hurt America in a real nasty way that people didn't hear about," Mark Paris told the Las Vegas paper. "This put the ICBM system on its ear for a while.

The accident resulted in top-level changes in Air Force travel procedures, as well. "That's the last time sensitive information and that many personnel with (knowledge of) sensitive information ever flew on the same airplane," Paris said.

Immediately after the accident, FBI agents secured the area where wreckage from the DC-7 had landed. "They were not looking for survivors," says Faith Paris, Steve's widow. "They were looking for papers."

Today, anyone who visits the site where United Air Lines Flight 736 fell to Earth will be looking for a round metal container, camouflaged in an innocuous pile of indigenous rocks. It's a small tribute to those who died on that April day, almost 54 years ago. It can never be enough... but I suspect if Robert Darmody had lived to experience the age of smartphones and GPS, he would have approved of the gesture.

It is difficult to describe how I felt standing on that hallowed ground. Though relieved to see that most of the area remains undeveloped, I still felt it would have been more appropriate to have a monument or shrine at the corner of West Cactus and Decatur, rather than a Wells Fargo and a convenience store. Tears never came; I felt at first guilty, and then simply confused by that. The closest I came to choking up was when I thought of my Grammie, who died earlier this year without ever having visited the site her first husband had perished. Mom hasn't made it out here yet, either, but she will soon.

In the end, I can't really say that I felt any closer to Robert Darmody standing on that spot, than I do any other day. And I mean that in the best way possible.

I've written before about my grandfather. For a man I never had the honor of meeting, his influence weighs upon me... from a shared love of flight, to an eye for model-making.

I even look like him... well, kind of. My mother, Kathy -- nine years old when she lost her dad -- has said before she sees a lot of her father in me. I do know I've "felt" his hand on my shoulder a number of times, in both good times and bad.

There's one significant difference between Robert Darmody and his grandson, though, one I proudly acknowledge: my grandfather was an unquestionably brilliant man. I so wish I could have known him.

NOTE: All italicized text is from "Families Mark 50th Anniversary Of United 736 Midair Collision" published by the Aero-News Network on April 21, 2008.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

When All is Said and Done...

...I do love Logistics.

I ended my last post facing an uncertain future, and fully expecting to leave my job at DMC to make the leap to freelance writing. It turns out that a happy compromise was available, though - a transfer over to the Operations side, where I can have a more direct impact on optimizing routes and resolving a few of the outstanding service issues we've had with some of our customers.

The new position may even allow me the opportunity to 'hit the road' (and the air) to meet with customers and drivers, as it's sometimes difficult to see the full picture when sitting at a desk, looking at a Google Map.

And, perhaps most important of all... with limited exceptions, this should be a strict 8-5 position, giving me time to continue my writing. My new supervisor has also indicated to me she's open to me scheduling interviews for articles as time allows during the work day, as she knows I'll make up the time where needed.

This eases a tremendous burden I've been feeling. I didn't want to give up either job, and now it looks like I'll have the chance to continue doing both.