Thursday, December 1, 2005

My Grandpa

It's taken this long for me to be able to write about it... my grandfather died Monday morning, at 4:00 am, after a very protracted battle with the ruthless scourge that is Alzheimers.

Harry Sayers would have been the first one to tell you that he wasn't a great man. He had greatness thrust upon him a couple of times, along with wealth and power. In his later years, he was very candid about why the lost those things, time and again. He drank it away the first time, although he was able to stop in the early 80s after being literally scared into it -- his doctor had told him, quite candidly, that the next time he came into his hospital because of something he'd done while drunk... the doctor wouldn't do a thing to save him. The world needs more of that, I think.

My grandpa was also the type of guy who, when his 11 year-old grandson asked him four years later why he had ever drunk so much that he threw away a lucrative car dealership, and had almost ruined his marriage over it ... he told me. I'll never forget that conversation... it was probably one of my first Defining Moments, right up there with my first girlfriend, Catherine, and learning to fly.

Money came and went for my Grandpa. When he had it, he spent it lavishly -- he'd owned over 30 Cadillacs, after all. He also bought my aunt a new car -- that I naively believed to be my own, when he told me to go downstairs and look in the garage, there was a surprise down there. I was sixteen, and I thought the teal Saturn was mine. I was crushed when he told me it was Peggy's... maybe it was the lingering effects that alcoholism had on his mental state, or perhaps it was just his personality... but I don't think he ever did understand why I was so upset.

I got over it, though (I got a sort-of revenge, several years later, when I bought my own Saturn... a nicer one than Peg's) and I'm proud to say I helped him pick out what would be his last Cadillac... a 1992 Sedan deVille, two-tone brown with a vinyl roof. "Which one of these do you think I picked out?" he asked me on the showroom floor of Classic Cadillac. I went right to it... and he then told the salesman that any flaws I found on the car, the dealership was going to fix. They did.

Familial relationships were strained several times. He sometimes did and said things that were unconscionable, so hurtful that you staggered back as though you'd been hit by a baseball bat. He eventually came around, though, and soon things would be back to normal. No one in my family ever forgets anything... but we do chose to forgive, for the simple joy and need and love of being together as a family.

Come to think of it, that would also become a defining trait in my life.

Grandpa's health began to fail long ago. He suffered frequent asthma attacks, and the ambulance made semi-regular trips to my grandparents' duplex on Grover Street. This was before dementia and Alzheimers... I don't remember when, exactly, he was diagnosed with it. Probably around 2000... it seems both like he'd always had it, and that he just got it yesterday.

He got worse when my grandparents lost their little poodle, Clancy, a few years ago. He had been my grandfather's best buddy.

Being in Albuquerque, and later Dallas, I didn't see very much of my grandpa. In fact... my God... the last time I saw him was Christmas of 1998, when my mom and I drove up to Omaha.

How did I let the last seven years go by without seeing him? How could you do that, Rob?

Until he was placed in a nursing home earlier this year, we did speak every week. I remember one of the last times I talked to him: standing outside the breakroom at American Gypsum, on my cellphone. He had just been admitted to the home. He didn't understand why.

"When I get out of here, I'm going to get the money together to pay for your flying lessons," he told me. "You'll have to fly up here, fly over the house and wave to me."

Okay, Grandpa, I told him.

This past Monday morning, I woke up with a start in my bed in Dallas at 4 am. I had heard a prop plane fly very low overhead. I got up and looked out the window, but couldn't see any lights. I grabbed my NavCom and tuned it to the ADS tower frequency. Nothing.

A minute later, again I heard the plane. It sounded even lower now. Once more I went to the window. Nothing, nor was there any chatter on Addison's CTAF.

I fell back asleep, only to wake up at 6 am. I had kept the NavCom on, and the controller announcing on frequency the tower was resuming operations is what woke me up. I got up, turned on the coffeemaker, and began the day for Aero-News. It felt good to get a headstart on the day.

Twenty minutes later, the phone rang. I knew why when I saw the phone number.

Grandpa, I'm happy you're finally in a better place. You weren't living your life for the last few years, just a shell of it.

I'm so very sorry I didn't call more, and wish I would have hugged you more often when I had the chance.

And I'm sorry I didn't see you waving Monday morning... but it was dark outside, and you were flying too fast for me to see.

Love, Robbie

Sunday, November 13, 2005


Well, I'm back. After a truly excruciating 3-hour flight from MCO to DFW aboard a packed Canadair CRJ-100 (they look cooler from the outside) I was wheels down in Dallas at 2015 local Saturday night. It felt good, too -- I was somewhat surprised how much I'd missed being in Dallas the past two weeks. I'm not sure if that's because I like the place so much, or if it's only because I liked Florida so little. If only Texas had real mountains.

The whirlwind of adjusting to a new job, in a new city, working with new people at not one but TWO trade shows had taken its toll on me out in Florida. When I woke up for the first day of NBAA (when the picture in the following entry was taken) I couldn't remember ever having been so tired, or ever dreading what was to come so much. THIS wasn't why I wanted to write about aviation... God, what had I done?

Much like getting my wisdom teeth pulled -- and without benefit of the truly, truly wonderful drugs -- I suffered through it because it had to be done. Truth be known, a lot of it was pretty interesting; more important than personal enjoyment, I learned a lot... so let's call it 1/2 oral surgery, 1/2 lesson grudgingly learned. And yes, I'd do it all again.

Now, though, begins the real fun: the daily routine of being Associate Editor for ANN. I even have business cards (below) so it's official, I'm really working for them.

The rough schedule goes something like this: wake up early, and while Senior Editor Pete Combs is playing big-shot radio personality in NC, I'll grab any headlines from overnight and post them on the site in "real-time" for the morning. Depending on the workload, I then take a break until Pete is back in pocket at around noon, and then we'll coordinate what to post for the next day and what should go on that evening's Aero-Cast. Time will tell how much time that will take, although I've been assured I'll still be able to have a life, such as it is.

We'll see.

There will be moments of fun, too -- I'm supposed to check out IndUS Aviation sometime this week down at RDB (I refuse to call it Dallas Executive -- "Redbird" is such a great name for an airport, even better than Albuquerque's Sunport) and fly the company's Thorpedo T-211 light-sport aircraft. It's not the Avanti II (below) but it'll do...

And there will be more travel. I'll also be able to start flying again shortly, working towards the private license -- and I'll be able to write about it.

Sometimes, life doesn't suck. I've been thinking about that a lot lately, as well as the circumstances that brought me to this point. I'd never thought I'd be at this point in my life, back in 1998 when I was licking my wounds from Fresno. Nor would I have believed I'd be here now had you asked me in the summer of 2001, when I was unemployed, lovesick over a truly worthless woman, and completely unwilling to intermingle with the outside world. Back then, I chose instead to lock myself in my little house off El Pueblo, generally feeling sorry for myself. After three months like that, my friends and family finally forced me to leave the house, and get a job -- any job would do.

That led me to a little courier outfit called DMC -- which, one year later, led me to the world of small airplanes. Almost a year to-the-day after that, I left DMC for American Gypsum (yeah, yeah, thanks Tony) which, in a roundabout way, led me to Aero-News -- and Dallas, a city that has agreed with me more so than not.

Life is often more interesting than we give it credit for.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Death By PowerPoint

"Whaddaya mean it starts on Tuesday?" That was the consensus question at dinner Monday night, as Kevin ("Hognose") and I found out that press conferences at NBAA traditionally begin -- in earnest -- on the day before the actual event starts. We'd been preparing to take a bit of a break Tuesday, before heading to Orlando Wednesday for the 2005 National Business Aviation Association Conference/Meeting/Clambake.

"Nope, Tuesday. You need to be there by 8:00," Jim told us. "There are 28 conferences scheduled."

Quick head count: there was Kevin, Dave (Higdon, a freelance av writer working for ANN for NBAA) and me... and that was all. Jim had already stated he would be out most of the day, and Pete's already back in North Carolina... and that's the entire staff.

"We're Aero-screwed," said Kevin, the resident quipster.

What followed could best be described as farce, but at least it was high farce. With four conferences scheduled per hour, that meant one would get shafted right off the bat. We often picked the wrong one to blow off. Case in point:

TAG Aviation announced a new Part 135 operation flying the Eclipse 500, at the same time a French avionics firm was announcing its new in-cabin wifi/broadband entertainment system. Guess which one matters to the av-community more. Guess which one I was at. (Hint: they served champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries afterward. I passed.)

Dave -- who has done this many times before, so he knows where to be -- heard about the first Adam 500 centerline twin to be delivered to an actual customer. I was covering... another wifi provider, this time from Switzerland. Cessna announced certification for the Encore.

Dave was covering an FBO presser while I was hearing about an aviation weather provider's new online dispatching and flight planning program (actually pretty interesting -- any AG'ers reading this, it is EXACTLY like CarrierPoint for airplanes) while Kevin was covering... yep, another wifi (there were seven in all, Kevin got all but two of them.) All three of us missed the announcement of Raytheon's new Hawker 850XP bizjet.

There were some victories: I got to listen to Vern Raburn describe flying the Eclipse 500 into Peter O. Knight in Tampa last week (a similar talk he had with Jim is today's Featured Aero-Cast) and I also learned a little about the Piaggio Avanti II, the upgraded version of N130EM, Eagle Materials' plane. Kevin got to schmooze with some fellow aero-heads, and Dave got a scoop on a Bombardier announcement.

And then there was my last conference of the day, with Brazilian regional-jet manufacturer Embraer.

The company announced some more details on its upcoming very-light jet (VLJ, the market Eclipse arguably pioneered) and light jet (LJ) aircraft. Embraer announced both would feature a Garmin G1000 avionics suite, which was kind of surprising as both Avidyne and L-3 had been courting Embraer pretty hard. But that wasn't the big news...

The company also announced the unveiling of the cabin mockups for both aircraft, scheduled for Wednesday morning. The official names of both airplanes would also be revealed at that time -- "not a moment before."

All was well with their plans until the Q&A session, when right off the bat an unidentified reporter (not me, I swear) asked "what can you tell me about the Legacy 600?"

Heads turned. There is no Legacy 600 in Embraer's line...

"Um... nothing, until tomorrow morning," the Senior VP handling the conference stammered, in thickly accented English.


Read how Aero-News handled the story here. Guess who wrote it!

P.S. I offer the above picture as an example of karma -- because we haven't had any of those lately. For anyone who ever said I failed to hold my weight in my past jobs, rest assured this one is making up for it...

Sunday, November 6, 2005

Ay-Oh-Pah Expo 2005

Week One of the new job is in the books, and what a week it was.

The 2005 AOPA (pronounced in the industry as "Ay-Oh-Pah," although each letter should be said as it's the abbreviation for Aircraft Owners and Pilot's Association) Expo is on the books, and we at ANN managed to put out some damn fine coverage, if I do say so myself. Those three days in Tampa also served as a great -- and educational -- introduction to the life of an aviation journalist, which is something I'll admit I'm still struggling to come to terms with. I'm not used to days of varying hours, intermittent sleep, and being in the company of people who know far, far more about aviation than I do. And it's all very intimidating... very cool, too, but very humbling.

Fortunately, I'm learning a lot too, which is what it's all about. The perpetual grin that was on my face all last week has now faded somewhat, but it's been replaced by a more thoughtful, curious smile that hopefully says "bring it on, I want to know it all, no matter how much it knocks me on my ass."

Which it has, as by the end of yesterday my editor and coworkers were all speaking of how I was showing signs of strain. Maybe it was when I offered to pay sticker price on a Beriev 103 (below), a six-passenger, 4000 lb. Russian twin-engined amphibian that, while very cool, also has a payload capacity of one SMALL person (ideally, the pilot) when loaded with full fuel. Or when I hugged the StingSport, a LSA I really, really want to own (top).

Either way, it was decided by unanimous vote that a dead newbie was of no use to ANN, so I was given today off. I spent some of it back at Peter O. Knight airport, the location of the static display for AOPA and where the photos above were taken. The airport, quite possibly the most scenic venue in all of Tampa (not saying much, alas... how can a city surrounded by the ocean be so damn dull?) is very close to The Perfect Airport. I intend to write about it in an upcoming ANN feature, so be on the lookout...

Now, onto Week Two, and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA -- clever acronym at your own risk) show in Orlando now looms. Lessons learned at AOPA will be now be practiced, before I return "home" to Dallas. (Home, in this context, is where my stuff is, but not my heart anymore.)

Stay tuned!

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Random Thoughts On The Passing Scene

With apologies to Thomas Sowell, the conservative columnist and one of my favorite writers, who starts his newspaper columns off with the same phrase. I hope it isn't copyrighted.

--- It's raining again. It's... raining... again. It's raining again. According to the Collin County Regional Airport's Automated Surface Observation System, or ASOS, it has been raining all morning up in McKinney, with a dense fog layer 100 feet above the ground and broken-to-overcast cloud cover at 1000. Second verse, same as the first, and it has been that way for the past five weekends--- except for last Sunday, when it was absolutely gorgeous weather, sunny and clear, but too windy.

This is starting to wear on me a little.

I find that I'm mentally flying patterns in my head, running through all items on the landing checklist, and doing perfect full-stall landings at 65 knots in my mind--- only to realize that I forgot to pull out the carb heat on downwind. I'm making putt-putt sounds as I hold onto an imaginary yoke at my desk at work, practicing slips, my feet working rudder pedals that aren't there. I accidentally pulled off the temperature knob in my car, because I mistook it for the throttle vernier lever.
I'm only partially joking.

---I've become a music-download junkie. It makes too much sense to be able to download only the songs you like (versus taking a chance with an entire album that usually doesn't live up to the promise of the one or two decent songs that get airplay) and then burning them onto a CD. This has introduced me to The Killers ("Mr. Brightside"), Finley Quaye ("Dice"), and Franz Ferdinand ("Take Me Out"), among others.  One more reluctant step into the 21st century for Rob...

--- Without being able to fly, I've settled into something of a routine on Sunday mornings.  Wake up before seven, watch the Top 20 video countdown on VH1, followed by "Best Week Ever."  Brew a pot of coffee, drink a cup or three from my Abby coffee mug and read the Sunday paper. 

At 9:30, I change gears and switch over to "This Week" on ABC. I'm not a big George Stephanopoulos fan (yes, I had to Google the correct spelling) but I think, from a production standpoint, this is the best Sunday morning news program on television.  It also usually has the best guests and the most interesting commentators.  And George Will. 

But it's the final segment that always gets to me: "In Memoriam," the rundown of famous figures who have passed away in the past seven days.  There are usually four or so, and each is given about twenty seconds of recognition for what they were known for.  It's all set to a mournful variation of the "This Week" theme music that I find very haunting.  Watch it once.  You'll see what I mean...
But it's the end of the piece that gets to me.  The names of soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan are listed, four names per page, often at least four pages worth.  There are always too goddamn many of them.

And here I sit, bitching that I can't fly.  "In Memoriam" is my weekly dose of perspective.  Really, it's about as much as I can take. 

---And, finally...

English is not known throughout the world as a particularly beautiful or melodic language.  Not nearly as harsh or gutteral as German, of course, but certainly lacking the songful quality of Spanish or French.  But still, there are some words that rise above the language, although invariably they are words derived from other languages.

Take the word truce, for exampleDerived from the Middle English trewes, "a respite especially from a disagreeable or painful state or action."  And when spoken quietly, hesitantly, as a single-word question... it's as beautiful a word as any that exists in our known world.

There are a handful of people out there who know exactly what I'm speaking of.

Sunday, February 6, 2005

Those Magnificent Men In Their Ground-Taxiing Machines

"McKinney Ground, good morning," I announced proudly on a beautiful Friday morning, with a lilt to my voice and a song in my heart.  "Skyhawk 5187-Echo at tower base, ready to taxi for closed traffic, with the numbers."

It was, quite simply, a perfect day.  Hardly a cloud was present in the brilliant blue sky (rare for North Texas, on both counts) and, most impressively, not a trace of wind.  It was definitely a day worth taking off from work, to spend some time cloud-dancing.  The propeller sung as it fast-idled at 1000 rpm, I had the seat perfectly adjusted (difficult to do in this particular aircraft)... I was in the zone!  Today was going to be a good day.

"And good morning to you, Skyhawk 5187-Echo.  McKinney Ground, taxi to 1-7, caution traffic exiting to the ramp at Bravo."  Even the controller seemed to be a good mood.

I blipped the throttle just enough to get the plane moving, then tapped the tops of the rudder pedals to test the brakes.  Eight-seven-echo dutifully responded by coming to a rapid halt, no sign of any problems there.  The traffic that Ground cautioned me about, another Cessna, was already clear of the taxiway and setting up to park on the north ramp.  I advanced the throttle to 1200, then back to just above idle, and began a brisk taxi to the end of the runway. 

It had already been a good day.  Preflight had revealed to me a new lesson, one that I had never encountered in real life: water in the fuel.  Both wing sumps had been sparkling clear blue, but sumping the filter drain below the engine had shown two globules of water, settled at the bottom of the collection tube.  Water in the fuel could be a very bad thing; if the engine ingested even a small amount of it, about as much as had shown up in the tester, the engine could and very likely would stop running.  Not good.

Fortunately, the system had worked exactly as it was supposed to: the water, heavier than avgas, had settled to the very bottom of the Skyhawk's gravity-fed fuel system, where it could be quickly evacuated.  I had pulled the fuel drain at the top of the engine, accessed by a small aluminum access flap on top of the cowl, and let the fuel drain out onto the ground for five seconds.  (Please don't tell the EPA.)   I had then reattached the tester, and collected a clear sample.  No more water... just to be on the safe side, though, I collected three more samples at the fuel drain, and one more at each wing sump... All clear, no water.  A lesson previously learned, had now been practiced.

Back to the present.  I was now coming up to the run-up area, at the end of the runway.  Two other aircraft were present: a Beech Baron twin and what looked to be an early-60s vintage squaretail Cessna Skylane.  There was just enough room to squeeze 87-Echo in at the end of the apron.

Brakes set, I began the pre-takeoff checklist.  There's a checklist for everything in flying: walkaround inspection, landing checklist, what to do in case of an engine fire... dutifully, I flipped the handbook to the right page, and began running down the list.  Cabin secure, seatbelt and shoulder harness fastened, fuel selector on "Both," hold brakes.  Advance throttle to 1700...

The moment the engine spooled up to 1700 rpm, I saw it.  That access panel on top of the cowl, ahead of the windshield, was now fluttering in the propwash.  Had I latched it securely after checking the fuel and oil?  It wasn't coming open, but it was definitely loose, or not latched at all.

Hmm... keep an eye on that, definitely...

I continued the checklist.  Verify oil pressure, flip the magnetos, check for rpm dropoff, okay... pull carb heat... dammit, that flap is still shaking...

By now I was the only plane on the apron, as the Baron had just taken off and the Skylane was in position on the runway to do the same.  I was three-quarters through the checklist, and eager to fly.  I could fly with the panel loose; it had always been a little loose, anyway.  It was hinged, so it's not like it would come flying off suddenly...

...Or would it?  Sighing heavily, I throttled back to 1000 rpm, flipped the avionics master off, and pulled out the mixture.  The engine coughed slightly, and then the propeller stopped.  I set the parking brake, switched off the master switch and ignition, and unlatched the seatbelt as I was opening the door.  I'd better check, just to make sure...

The panel flipped right open as I lightly touched the edge of it, without pushing the release button.  I hadn't secured it, evidently.  I pushed the flap back down, and it seemed to be holding now.  So, it was a good thing that I had checked, then.  Better safe than sorry.  I hurried back into the cockpit, ran through the engine start checklist, flipped on the master and turned the key.  87-Echo turned over almost immediately.   Awright, I grinned. 

I ran through the pre-takeoff check once more, before I taxied up to the hold-short line.  I flipped the radio over to the tower frequency.  "McKinney Tower, Skyhawk 5-1-8-7-Echo, ready to go at 1-7 for closed traffic."  I was thinking I would go around the pattern twice, before departing to the practice area over Lake Lavon.

"Skyhawk 8-7-Echo, McKinney Tower.  Left closed traffic approved, cleared for takeoff."  As soon as I heard "cleared..." I had the throttle in, rolling into position on the runway.  "Cleared for takeoff, 87-Echo..." I replied as I pushed the throttle in full...


I've never fully understood the odd connection that some people have with their cars, or other inanimate objects.  As fastidious as I am about my car, for example, I've never given it a name.  I recognize that the Grand Am is only a collection of off-the-parts-shelf General Motors mechanicals, in a somewhat dated and quite overstyled wrapper.  That's all it is.  It does not have a soul, it does not care if it starts or not, nor if it gets me to work in one piece, because it lacks the capacity to do so. 

But airplanes are different.  They just are.  I realized that back in New Mexico, as I walked out onto the ramp at SevenBar one cold March morning to preflight N62507, the plane I later soloed in, before a lesson.  For whatever reason, as I approached the plane I blurted out "Good morning, my little Skyhawk..." before pausing in odd disbelief at what I had just said.

Five-oh-seven was also just a collection of mechanical pieces, designed with a higher purpose, perhaps, but in the end nothing more than another means of transportation, just like a car.  But, well... 507 also had an intangible quality, that was hard to define.  I was counting on it not only to make my hackneyed student-level attempts at flight look presentable, but more importantly to safely carry me into the sky and back down again.  It's survival depended on me, and mine on it.  For that reason, I decided that day that N62507 had a soul, perhaps even more than some people possess.  Naysayers be damned. 

I'll always have a special place in my heart for N62507, because it was the first plane I flew all by myself.  It's funny, though, how in a fairly short time how N5187E has also endeared itself to me.  Like 507, it is not the prettiest airplane on the ramp, it's new white-and-blue paint scheme jarringly offset by it's 70s-vintage orange and brown interior.  All 172s look somewhat dowdy, this one even more so.

But I don't care.  This little plane--- my little Skyhawk--- has seen me through more rough landings and awkwardly-flown-patterns than 507 ever did, and any other plane likely will.  This is the plane that I'm truly learning to fly in, whereas 507 got me through the basics.  Somehow, 87-Echo feels like my airplane, although like 507 it's just another rental, available to anyone with at least a student solo endorsement and $82 per hour.  It--- she?--- has always seen me right, and has never failed to get me back on the ground safely and all-of-a-piece, even when I've been less-than-kind to it (my porpoising go-around comes to immediate mind.)  Eight-seven-echo is a trooper.

Which is why, on this beautiful Friday morning, I found it hard to be angry when, as I started my takeoff run at full-power--- that goddamned cowl flap door flew open, held upright in the propwash and right in my line of sight, looking for all the world (or at least to me) like my little Skyhawk was giving me the bird.

Decision time.  Forty-knots indicated, rotation speed is 60.  It'll stay on, I'm fairly sure... the hinge won't break... or will it?  And what damaged would it do if it did break off?  Would it fly into the propeller?  No, wrong way, it would hit the windscreen first... right?

Dammit, I want to fly!!!

"Tower, 87-Echo is aborting takeoff," I sighed as I pulled the throttle back.  "I have an access panel that isn't staying closed."  I glanced at the airspeed indicator.  I had pulled the throttle at 55 knots, almost takeoff speed.

"Understood, 87-Echo... what are your intentions?"

"Request taxi back to the ramp.  See if I can figure out how to keep this thing latched."

"Roger, 87-Echo... stay with me, taxi to the ramp, you can continue down to Delta if you like."

"Thanks for the help, 87-Echo." I replied, as I goosed the throttle enough to pull the airplane further down the runway to the Delta turnoff.  As soon as I pulled the power back to idle, the access flap settled back down into position... but when I pushed the power back in, it lifted right back up.
No flying today.


Once I had the plane safely parked and tied-down, I took a closer look at the door.  It looked as though the latch had been reinforced once before, and that the metal flap patched on earlier had finally worn away completely.  There was just enough of a edge sticking up at the front to catch the propwash and raise the door.

"Got any duct tape?" I asked one of the FBO reps, who had come out to take a look at it as well.  He shook his head. 

I had spent an hour at the airport, and of that .2 hours were spent in the plane.  That's two-tenths of an hour that I get to put in my logbook, as I was at the controls of an airplane for that time.  Two-tenths of an hour, spent essentially driving the airplane back-and-forth.  It was all almost worth it, though, for what the Fixed Base Operator said as I turned the keys back in.

"You did the right thing," he said.  "It probably would have stayed on in normal flight, but had you needed to put the plane into a slip on approach, the turbulence would have snapped it off.  I've seen it happen before."

Often, learning to fly isn't about flying at all.  It's knowing when not to.  In that, 87-Echo had just taught me another lesson, and I had done right by her by not taking off.

At least, that's what I'm telling myself, as I sit here now checking the weather.  It's supposed to rain on-and-off through next week, and into next weekend.  Should the skies clear, it will have to be on the weekend, since I don't want to burn another vacation day from work.  I haven't flown in a month now, and I'm starting to feel just a little punchy about it.

Oh, well...

Monday, January 17, 2005

End of an Era...

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines today celebrated the final flight of its last remaining 737-200 airplane, N95SW.  The flight, an invitation-only affair made up of 95 Southwest employees (including chairman Herb Kelleher) took off from Love Field this morning and flew a lazy route south over Waco before returning to Love an hour later.  To commemorate the importance of putting the -200 to "bed," all 95 passengers were dressed in special pajamas.

Gotta love Southwest.  You'll never see United do that.

Southwest began operations in 1972 with a handful of then-brand new -200s. Five-Sierra-Whiskey was delivered new to the airline in May 1983, and was one of the last "old-model" 737s delivered to Southwest before the introduction of the much-improved -300 model in 1984 (today, the model is up to the -800 "Next Generation" series, although all new Southwest aircraft to-date are of the -700 variety.)  

Some trivia:

---Southwest -200s were painted in the 80s-vintage "Desert Sand" color scheme--- yellow, orange, and brown--- except for one: N96SW was accidentally painted in the new "Canyon Blue" livery (blue on top) after a memo from the fleet operations supervisor called for the wrong aircraft to be repainted.   By the time the mistake was caught, the repaint was almost complete, and so it stayed. 
That supervisor, incidentally, was not fired. 

--- -200s are easy to spot on the ramp at any airport, with their long, thin, unpainted Pratt & Whitney engine nacelles under the wings (as opposed to the much-wider, oblong body-color CFM56 turbofan engines on the -300 and above.)  These nacelles almost always proclaim "Boeing 737" on their sides.  Those P&W engines also have a far louder, much more mechanical "popping" sound when spooling to full throttle, versus the comparatively smooth (and not quite so loud) turbine scream of the CFMs. 

---In the past few years, -200 were mostly relegated to Southwest's intrastate routes in order to place the larger and more efficient -300s on the longer interstate routes.  Now, -700s will gradually phase out the older aircraft, although this process will take several years.
---All Southwest 737s have identical cockpits.  Southwest orders all their new aircraft with the traditional "steam gauge" instrument panel, as opposed to the newer glass-screen instruments common today on new commercial aircraft.  This was done so that a pilot rated to fly a -200 could step into the cockpit of a new -700 and fly the aircraft with a minimum of additional training.

---For all the ceremony, this will likely not be the last time that a -200 flies for Southwest.  With their recent acquisition of many of ATA's assets, Southwest will now "code share" flights on ATA aircraft into several new markets.  These markets will be served by ATA's 737 fleet, in that airline's livery, and many of those aircraft are -200s.  Today did mark the final time a -200 in Southwest colors will fly, though.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Approach Lights

(NOTE: This is where it all began, as it were. "Approach Lights" was one of three blog entries I submitted to Aero-News Network in May of 2005, to be considered for a volunteer "stringer" correspondent position at Oshkosh. After I returned home from the show and was in discussions with ANN to go full time, I was told this entry was the one that had convinced Zoom to give me a shot. And the rest, as they say, is history.)

So here I am at 9:55 p.m. on a Monday night, parked in my traditional spot in the lot of a nondescript office complex at the southeast corner of Sojourn & Midway. On the other side of the fence before me lies the single 7,200-foot runway of the Addison Airport, a strip of grayish concrete neatly defined by crisp white edge lighting and the softer blue hues lining the taxiways. The interior of the Grand Am is illuminated by only the glow of its radio display, and the stroboscopic effect of the approach lighting system "rabbit" leading down to the threshold of runway 15. The effect is surreal.

This patch of asphalt has become my shrine, my sanctuary. I pay homage whenever I can, usually at least a couple of times per week. What makes it special to me is its accessibility and its location: less than two miles from my apartment, and directly in line with the runway under the approach path for aircraft landing on 15. 

During daylight hours seldom a minute passes that doesn't find a Lear screaming overhead, or a Skyhawk puttering down the glideslope with full flaps extended and its engine near idle. A $70 million Gulfstream G550 may be immediately followed by a comparatively ancient V-tail Bonanza, with a Diamond DA40 Diamond Star, Cirrus SR22, or Cavanaugh's North American T-6 right behind them.
I imagine many of the tenants in those offices behind me must absolutely hate the location, given the smell, the noise, the drama. Either that or they've simply gotten used to it all, and pay the cacophony surrounding the airport little mind. If I were in their shoes, there would be another issue: I'd be too busy running for the window every time I heard the whine of engines, racing to catch a glimpse of what's flying overhead, how low the approach is being flown, is the airplane tracking the centerline or not. I'd never get any work done. 

By 10 pm, though, there hasn't been a single plane overhead for the last half-hour. This is the quiet time, when all but the freight dogs and airline pilots have largely settled in to wait out daybreak on the ground. Just as the clock strikes 2200, the ALS rabbit blinks off with no ceremony, the approach threshold falls dark, and the runway lights dim to but a faint glow. The control tower is now closed at one of the nation's busiest single runway airports. 

This is my time to reflect; for lack of a better term, I guess you could say that this is my time to pray. As Counting Crows sing "A Murder of One" from the CD deck (the title references birds, not homicide) I settle back into my seat in quiet reflection, my gaze never leaving the soft bluish glow from the scene before me.


Too many of my life experiences seem to relate to Counting Crows songs. Although he can't sing worth a damn, Adam Duritz does write some fantastic lyrics. He's very much a modern-day Harry Chapin. "All My Friends" is the perfect anthem for a single guy approaching his 30s, while "Recovering the Satellites" strikes a chord with me about Albuquerque that I can't quite put my finger on, but still identify with. And if a movie is ever made about my life, I want "Daylight Fading" playing in the background as the camera pans wide to capture my car heading down the 99, leaving Fresno behind ("I heard you let somebody get their fingers into you/ It's getting cold in California, I guess I'll be leaving soon...")

Right at this moment, however, it is "A Murder Of One" that defines my mood.

It's been years since we were born/ We were perfect when we started, I've been wonderin' where we've gone...
All your life is such a shame, shame, shame...
All your love is just a dream, dream, dream...

I've never read anything by Susan Sontag. It's likely I never will, as I don't usually seek out liberal intellectualism when I'm at the bookstore. Nothing against Sontag or any of the rest of them; it just isn't my cup of tea. But I did happen to read her obituary in TIME this past week. There was a quote of hers that the article referenced a few times, even using it as the bullet item underneath her photograph. I guess it's a well-known quotation, but I'd never heard it before:

"Be serious.  Be passionate.  Wake up."

That's all we should ever hope for, you know?

Too much of our lives seem to be spent drifting idly through our existence. Too many times we steer ourselves down the paths of least resistance and lesser stimulation, focusing only on those things that ensure we have enough novelty in our lives so that we may want to survive to see tomorrow, that give us just enough momentary satisfaction to continue on down the road to Who Cares What. Inspiration for better things often suffers as dreams are constantly deferred, more often than not thanks to the actions of the dreamers themselves. 

Be serious. Be passionate. Wake up.

If there's one thing the last three years of my life have shown me, it is this: your life should be all about finding what excites you, what stimulates you, what breaks you out from the shell of mediocrity and forces you to grow... and grabbing onto that One Thing and holding onto it with all of your might. Be it flying, writing, pottery, poetry, teaching, religion, whatever. And, you should not be at all afraid to unashamedly proclaim it to all who listen. 

Those people who stick around to listen, and still put up with you, are your friends.


At 15 minutes past the hour, I notice steady red-and-white lights racing through the sky east of the field, heading north at about 1,500 feet above the city. It's flying roughly parallel to the field, apparently setting up for a downwind approach to 15. The plane soon dips out of sight, hidden by the office buildings behind me, but soon my hopes are confirmed: the ALS strobes light up in brilliant pulses of light -- it hurts to look at them, or anywhere near them -- and behind the markers the runway and field definition lights are similarly vivid against the darkness. Amazing what a pilot can do just by clicking the mike switch seven times.

As I marvel at the instant Christmas tree-like effect, a piston twin races overhead, seemingly lower than planes usually fly the approach, just above rooftop level. It's low enough that the noise from the props makes the Grand Am's sunroof rattle in its frame. Against the illumination of the ALS lights, I can just make out the sleek shape of the retreating aircraft: the conventional tail, the knock-kneed landing gear, the shark fin-like fuel tanks at the tips of each wing. A Cessna twin of some kind, maybe a rakish 310 (below) or an early tip-tank-equipped 402.

A freight dog, likely flying in with check stubs from outlying bank branches in tiny Texas towns. Heavy, yellow, reinforced nylon bags filled with transaction receipts, to be handed off to a waiting ground courier who absolutely must have those bags delivered to the Ops center within 30 minutes. My time pulling such duty at DMC makes it all-too easy to relate.

That pilot -- who by now is pulling onto the taxiway, ramp in sight, cleaning up the flaps and shutting down the landing light while also trying to keep the driver's van in sight to avoid ramp rash, or worse -- no doubt makes this run every night, or one very much like it. It is thankless, tedious, and occasionally terrifying work. He or she is flying freight in a clapped-out twin, its best days far, far behind it, so that they can make just a little money, barely enough to survive. I make more sitting at a computer terminal five days a week, answering calls about drywall.

But that's not what it's all about, fortunately; not by a long shot. Every hour that pilot is at the controls of that Cessna, is one hour closer to having enough time to be considered for hire by an airline. Maybe flying right seat on a regional Beech 1900 commuter plane, a CRJ, or -- with equal measures of luck and skill -- even a major carrier's 737 or A319.

FedEx, DHL and UPS are also desirable options, for while it would still be flying freight at all hours of the day and night, the pilot would get to do it on far newer, more advanced aircraft -- often the same types of jets the airlines fly -- and for much, much better pay.  Some pilots even prefer the cargo route to flying for passenger airlines, as there is no "self-loading freight" in back whining about that last bounced landing, or holding on for dear life after that high performance takeoff you just executed, a smug grin on your face.

That's the life, what that Cessna pilot's doing now, because it's flying for a living, pure and simple. No doubt the romance of the evening leg into Addison has long since worn off... but I wonder if occasionally, on his day off maybe, if that pilot doesn't drive to the parking lot of his hometown airport, and watch the planes taking off and landing for hours on end.  Maybe the novelty has long worn off, and he doesn't care to take his work home with him...

Or just maybe he does go and watch the planes... and as a Baron flies overhead in the pattern, perhaps he smiles and thinks to himself, "I get to do that..."


Fifteen minutes after they lit up the night, the runway lights fall dim once more. I take one last glance around the sky; there are several planes distant over downtown Dallas, even now at 10:35 p.m. on a Monday night, but none appear to be low enough to be coming into Addison. I start the car, and I'm startled by the radio suddenly coming to life; the accessory power turned off automatically a half-hour ago, but I hadn't noticed. Adam Duritz continues to warble as I turn out of the parking lot, and onto Midway.

I feel more alive now than I did an hour ago.

In five days, this coming Saturday morning, I have N5187E scheduled for two hours. I'll only be doing some pattern work; maybe I'll head out over Lake Lavon to do some slow flight or stalls. It's not nearly as glamorous as the life of a United pilot flying somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, en route to Tokyo. Hell, it's not even flying the Addison run in an ancient Cessna twin.

But it is flying, and it's another 1.2 hours or so in the logbook. That's not why I fly, though; not really. I doubt I'll ever even be a commercial pilot. I want to fly simply so that I can park and watch the planes taking off and landing at Addison, and smile knowingly at them, all the while thinking...

"I get to do that."

Be serious. Be passionate. Wake up.

Saturday, January 1, 2005


From Webster's dictionary--- avatar (n): a variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity.
All our lives are composed of "variant phases" of our core selves.  We adapt to our given circumstances, we mold ourselves to conform with new roles we either want, or are suddenly required, to play.  It's the theory of evolution at its rote form, and it is what has kept humanity going for millenia.  For all the spiritual beliefs I hold dear--- that there is deeper meaning to our lives and that nothing happens by complete accident---I firmly believe this somewhat cold, agnostic view of life as well.   In the end, we are all little more than the sum of all our experiences in this life, and how we change to adapt ourselves to them. 
As our roles shift, so go our identities.  We adopt new peer groups, we change opinions, we redefine who we are and what we want from our existence.  Those people and things that root us to our earlier selves--- for better and for worse--- are cast aside, either deliberately rejected or simply ignored, maliciously or not, a consequence of our shifting priorities.  Often, we leave them behind forever, as we step boldly onto the path we have determined to be the correct one.  And, thus, a new variant phase is created.  Sometimes that's for the better, and sometimes it's not...
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, I guess because of the New Year and all.  With so many transitions occuring right now, both within and without my life, I see many changes in myself and others.  Sometimes, it's hard to define who we are anymore.  Lord knows I've seen the changes in others... it's a little disquieting, but I guess that's just life...
I'll be posting more on this, once I get my thoughts together.  In the meantime, Happy New Year to all.