Crossing Over a Storm

The flight to visit the northern branch of the Red family was amazingly quiet, calm, and uneventful. The forecast appeared to promise the same for the return journey, but November had the final say. A big low pressure system opted to move north rather than south, dumped rain where it was needed (but not everywhere it was needed), snow where it was not expected, and then lurked along the line of travel between There and Home.

Happily for my peace of mind, the severe weather associated with the low wrapped up before the flight, at least along that route. It would return farther to the east, but I went west. The people shepherding everyone onto the flight warned that it was both full and full of kids, so please be patient. Indeed, I’d say a third of the passengers were babies or children under age six. That’s great! We boarded under clear skies, and took off on time, heading west and south. Soon white ripples and sheets of clouds hid the ground. The plane bounced a bit, light turbulence but nothing more, and I read. The cloud deck solidified. I could see a few low mesas of cloud to the east, but nothing towering or sending out streamers of hail and snow.

The plane sank through the clouds to emerge about two thousand feet or so above the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex*. Rain had drenched the place recently, based on the puddles, streams, and wet roofs below. Grey covered the world, the usual color of early winter, at least in my mind. The usual flurry of disembarkation followed, and MomRed, DadRed, and I found our gate and threaded our way through the bustling crowd to find a place to wait. We had a few hours. The clouds outside remained low and dark, as forecast. The windsock in the distance flapped in the usual Texas way. At least it wasn’t horizontal with the narrow end flipping up from time to time. That would come later, once the low finished chugging by.

MomRed and I went in search of dinner. We found a Baskin-Robins, and I tried the Spicy-and-Spooky chocolate. Dark chocolate, ghost pepper (just a tiny bit), dark and light chocolate chunks—what more could a chocolate buff ask for? It was great, and cleared my sinuses in a good way. Mom tried that and two milder flavors. As we finished the treat, the rain began to patter down lightly on the windows and roof. Ah, November.

The captain of the next flight told the flight attendants that they’d stay strapped in for the flight. That’s usually not a great sign, but I was too tired to sweat it. Plus we were in a nice, solid 737. We had the option of altitude if necessary. The plane launched into the grey, clawing through layers of grey and white to emerge into a painfully bright yellow-gold burst of light over a white rippled world. The plains of cloud mirrored the land far below. They reminded me of sand dunes, driven by the wind from northwest to southeast. The few bumps were no worse than my daily commute, and later the captain apologized for the lack of service. The ride from Amarillo to the D/FW area had been rough, and he was concerned about a repeat. As short as the flight was, I didn’t mind the lack of snacks, and I don’t think it bothered anyone else. We were all still in a bit of turkey-torpor I suspect.

We arrived in Amarillo to a striking sunset. Gold dripped from the clouds down toward the land as the sun set. Brilliant yellow and gleaming gold, like a Baroque church altar, draped the sky and washed the ground. A pillar of light, not an ice pillar but the last bits of virga, marked the place of the now-vanished sun. The cab driver agreed that it was one of our better sunsets.

It was a good day.

*There’s a regional saying that when you die, you have to go through Dallas/Fr.Worth before you can get to either Heaven or Hell. It was most certainly true about flying anywhere until very recently.


Look Out, Happy Tail!

Coffee-table height table, well worn, and surrounded by comfortable, slightly scruffy chairs. This is the kind of furniture that doesn’t mind if you have been working on an airplane, or refurbishing a WWII era hangar and then sit on the upholstery. Airport bums (APBs) are lounging around, talking airplanes, weather, airplanes, hangar gossip, and airplanes. And a Golden Retriever naps in the corner.

Bill, the owner of the dog, and Jerry, the aerobatic instructor, come bouncing in with everyone’s dinner orders (mostly burgers and one chicken and bacon sandwich, because the guy’s doc said, “Eat more white meat.”) “Hi guys! Food’s here!”

Bill sets his bag and drink carrier down on the table, and takes Goldie out for a moment. The rest of us pay Jerry and start sorting out burgers, fries, onion rings, and other stuff.* Food divided, we dive in.

Bill returns with Goldie. Goldie saunters over and looks at the table. “Not yet, girl,” Bill informs her. She backs away. He flops into an empty chair and grabs his burger. She turns to face him.

“Happy tail!” Jerry yelps. We grab everything off the coffee table as a strong, fluffy tail sweeps across the surface at a high rate of speed.

Ah, those were the days . . .

*For us, this was health food. A little later, I became quite an expert on which airport’s vending machines had the best selection, the healthiest stuff (not always a good thing), and the highest fat to chocolate ratio. Pilots and mechanics tend to be on the see-food diet. Or as one retired charter and corporate pilot phrased it, “If you are what you eat, I’m fast, cheap, and easy.”

June 6, 1942 . . .

An SBD Dauntless at Midway. Creative Commons Fair Use:

Planes from the Enterprise and Hornet chased the retreating Japanese fleet. The battle had begun on June 4th and continued until the 7th.

I helped restore an SBD, back when I was in college the first time.

So There We Were . . .

I had two instructors, both from earlier generations, who were both Air Force veterans. They had served in competing, er, that is, somewhat different branches of the Air Force. Fred had flown stuff like B-52s for the Strategic Air Command. Charlie had served in the Army in WWII and then managed to end up flying in the low, slow, and on-the-go side of the Air Force in Tactical Air Command. Fred had been an officer, Charlie a senior NCO. Very senior NCO. Both had stories . . .

So, it was one of Those weeks at Ye Little Airport. Fred and Charlie were both cranky. The airport manager was cranky, the mechanics had been giving us pilots more dirty looks than usual, and the flight school manager was . . . Well, the bills for the big yearly inspections on three of our planes had hit in the same week. Oh, and between winds too high for students, and clouds too low for students and birds both, not much folding green had come in to help with the bills.

So, there I was, seated at the desk behind the main counter. I could just barely be seen, sort of a red tuft poking up over the faux-wood. Fred and Charlie came in in the midst of a warm discussion. Very warm. Increasingly warm, using acronyms about half of which I understood. TAC, SAC, FAC, NDB, MACV, SOG, AHB, and a few other things, interspersed with suggestions of a lack of manhood and an absence of aviation prowess. Things got heated enough that I popped up like a prairie dog with a pony-tail and said, “Sirs, should I go check on the materials in the hangar?” The gents wanted to use salty language, which they would not do if a lady (or me) was present.

Charlie glanced at Fred and nodded. “Please do.”

“Yes, sir.” I went out into the hangar and made certain that the things in the cabinets were where they should be. Some were not, so I put the oil back in the oil rack, the washing supplies into their place, and so on. After roughly five minutes, I returned to the main office. Both gents were glaring at each other, as usual. This was an old, old debate that went back to, well, before I started flying. I’ll leave it right there.

I have no idea why, what devil inspired me, but I opened my mouth and started to sing a little ditty I picked up from a gent who was a career NCO with the [redacted state] Air Guard. It is/was sung to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”

“Oh here’s to the regular Air Force/ With medals and badges galore.

“If it weren’t for the [gosh-darned] Reservists,/ Their @ss would be dragging the floor!”

That’s the chorus. The verses are more pointed, and have saltier language.

Both gentlemen turned, glared at me, and snarled. The phone rang and I answered it, so I have no Idea what would have happened next. I do know that by the time I finished rescheduling the student, then booking a photography flight, the gents had turned to attacking their common enemy:

The US Navy.

And so peace descended once again on Ye Little Airport.

Mid-November State of the Author, 2021

Mildly frazzled. However, I will attest that the customer service sides of both AOPA and the FAA not-in-house-user computer people are very good. I just wish I had not needed their services. It was a case of “if you know how to use the system and what makes it tick, it’s an intuitive system” versus “Why is it not doing what I need it to do? It won’t tell me.”

I’m at 34K words on City, Priest, and Empire. This is going to be a longer book, which fits the story – the resettlement of the lands between the Comb Mountains and the Five Free Cities on the Northern Ocean. Halwende is . . . an intriguing character. His first big collision with the Northern Emperor is about to transpire, setting up the love/intensely-dislike relationship between them.

I hope to have the Lone Hunter story done soon. I need to finish one scene, but Life keeps happening.

I know how to work the three unfinished stories in the next Familiars anthology, it will just take time.

After that? We’ll see. I will have a lot less time over Christmas than I first thought. And next term is . . . full. Very full.

Rules Written in Blood

Aviation, at least in the US, has a surprisingly short list of rules. Part 91 of the federal transportation and other things regulations applies to everyone who flies anything. And as I told students, there is a lot of implied good judgement in the rules. Legal isn’t always smart. Smart comes down to the most important rule in the book: The pilot-in-command has the final authority and responsibility for the flight. The pilot in command can deviate from any of the rules if in his judgement safety demands it. Yes, you will have to explain, especially if something gets bent or broken. But the PIC is the boss, and everything else is based on trying to keep flying things out of undue proximity to the ground and to each other.

If you can’t see the ground, and you don’t have a “fly in clouds” license, don’t fly in the clouds. If you have not recently practiced flying and landing at night, don’t fly at night. If you are going eastbound, more of less, fly at an odd thousand feet plus 500 (if you are visual flight rules). Westbound gets the even thousands, plus 500. Don’t fly so close to the ground that you fly into the ground. Don’t be stupid. Don’t fly a broken airplane unless you label the broken thing so that you don’t get fooled and start to trust it. When around an airport, look out for other planes. The slowest, least-maneuverable thing has the right of way. Emergencies have the right of way (i.e. the guy on fire can land ahead of a blimp.)

If you are an airliner, you can’t go sightseeing off the approved route. Why? Because in 1956 two airliners were doing that, over the Grand Canyon, and one descended onto the other. People died. If your airplane is not certified and equipped for flying in known icing, don’t fly into known icing. Why? Because people did, and crashed, and died. Unless you are cleared for take off, or to cross the runway, and you and the controller agree that there is no one else on the runway, don’t take off, or don’t cross the runway. Why? March 1977, KLM and Pan Am 747s collided on the main runway at Tenerife, Canary Islands, killing 583 people. It also showed that better cockpit communication rules might be needed, because the KLM captain did not listen to his copilot/First Officer when the man asked about the Pan Am being clear of the runway. It wasn’t.

Engineering has its own rules. You can’t build certain things certain ways. You can’t build a 2000 foot-tall radio antenna without guy-wires and other supports. Dams need to be anchored to the bedrock beside them with a watertight seal (see Teton Dam, 1976). You have to allow for resonances in bridges where the wind blows (Tacoma Narrows). There are times where heavy structure trumps airy design.

Lots of areas of endeavor have rules written in blood. I’m not going to go into recent events in New Mexico, other than to say that I feel very, very sorry for the families of the woman who was killed and the man who was injured. Had the Four Rules of firearms handling been applied, it is possible that the accident would not have happened. 1. The firearm is always loaded. 2. Do not touch the trigger until you are ready to fire. 3. Do not point the firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy. 4. Remember what is behind your target. Heck, Fr. Martial smiled when he observed that when I stopped cleaning the desks in order to talk to him, I moved my finger off the “trigger” of the spray bottle and pointed the bottle at the outside wall. (Spraying one’s boss with cleaner/disinfectant is generally considered somewhat gauche.)

“Why can’t I skim the bottom of the clouds? It’s fun!” It’s fun until the clouds get lower, or someone else appears on an instrument flight plan and descends on top of you, or you don’t see a mountain in time.

“Why can’t I stay at 6500′ MSL* until it’s time to climb to get through the pass into Albuquerque?” Because there is a 7200′ ridge in the way. It loves to eat airplanes. For a while it was averaging one a year. Beware of clouds with crunchy middles.

*Mean Sea Level. Then there’s ASL, above sea level. The two are generally, but not always, the same. The most important, however, is AGL. Above ground level, where one should remain between takeoff and landing.

You Can’t Get There From Here: Aviation Version

“Where’s the access for the oil drain?”

“Down there. You have to reach past the engine mount, around the back of the supercharger, don’t hit the whatsis, and don’t forget to cut off the safety wire before you try to remove the drain plug. Hanging upside-down helps.”

Except that it’s hard to remember which is right and left when you are half-inverted on the work platform, trying to get to everything while the oil is still warm enough to drain quickly. I really, really disliked the designer who put that thing there.

Oh, and you have to replace the safety wire, which has to go around the plug in a certain way, and be twisted in a certain direction. If you don’t twist the wire tail and bend it so that the end is smooth and blunt, the Crew Chief or next person to work in that area will have WORDS with you. Trusssssst me on this.

I think every airplane and almost every other type of vehicle has one of those things – something you can’t get to easily, or quickly, or that is in a compartment so tightly crammed with expensive and fragile stuff that you are afraid to breathe and more afraid of dropping a hand tool or the gizmo you are trying to troubleshoot/repair/replace. Hellholes are found on all large aircraft, and someone always has to put the battery waaaaaay back in the tail-cone for weight-and-balance purposes. Unless the battery is just in a place that requires removing part of the interior of the plane to get to. Not an easy part, either.

Merlin engines and other in-line designs are infamous, because the designers made as tight a package as possible in order to squeeze everything into a very streamlined design. Trying to get to the starter, or oil drain, or certain other accessories takes slender hands, long arms, and bones like Plastic Man or Gumby. I once looked at a Japanese engine that appeared to have been draped with spaghetti or linguini. All the wires for the spark plugs, all running down the outside of the engine, and getting in the way of, well, finding anything else.

Electronics bays are notorious. Many jets and some turboprops put the guts of the electronic stuff, back in the pre-solid-state days, or when the plane has a radar unit on-board, up front in the nose near the oxygen tanks*. You cannot get to this bay from the cockpit. You have a separate hatch that opens into a dark, cramped, and either hotter than the blazes or colder than a well digger’s hip pocket space that is about as wide as most men’s shoulders. OK, not that cozy, but it feels like when you are trying to do any work in there that requires more than “remove box, slide in new box, close hatch.” Granted, airline-sized planes do have more room, but it’s still dark, and too warm or too cold, and when you drop things, they fall farther. I can pretty much guarantee that the more expensive the [thing], the louder it sounds when it hits the cement, no matter the size of the thing or how many steps on the ladder it hits on the way down.

I have had the privilege of squeezing myself into electronics bays, tail cones, wing roots, and aft fuselages of a number of aircraft. It was fun, and were I still that limber, I’d do it again. But I’d wear much better ear protection.

*In some biz-jets, the emergency oxygen bottles are in the nose. As you pre-flight the plane, you check the bottles, open the valves, and remove a long red “remove before flight” streamer that flaps outside the O2 compartment like a tongue. If the plane is taxiing “with its tongue out,” you’d better park, shut down, get out, and turn on your emergency O2 system. There’s some suspicion about a certain biz-jet crash and the bottles getting overlooked during preflight. Nothing is proven, though, but the super-long crimson streamer stems from that time.

Airplanes and Boom-sticks

They both have a set ratio of use to cleaning. In fact, I’m starting to think that two handgun makers in particular are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Beechcraft, because the handguns are just like a C-90 King Air. Two flights and then we washed the plane. Two range trips and then I clean the handguns.

Airplanes and firearms also lead to getting accessories. You know, headsets, knee-boards, cleaning supplies, manuals and guides, rule-books, bags to carry all of the above. A second headset because the first one wasn’t quite right, or you have a passenger/family member/friend who needs to have ear protection.

Airplanes and firearms eat a lot. Avgas and jet-A are, oh, about five to ten times as expensive per gallon (or pound or kilo, depending on how your plane is fueled) as car gas. Ammunition prices are starting to descend from “will trade fancy house in high-demand gated neighborhood for 100 rounds.” However, they are not a penny a round, like some calibers used to be. DadRed comments on this. Frequently. Especially after the Brown Truck of Happiness leaves a small, heavy box with a certain hazard marking on it.

Planes and firearms are both finicky about what you can use to clean them. I’m grateful for modern stuff, because I remember reading the Little House books and how Pa Ingalls poured boiling water down the barrel of his rifle to clean it. I’d just as soon not do that with a handgun! However, plane-washing and gun-cleaning are both messy, have to be done outdoors in some cases, and leave distinctive scents surrounding the individual doing the work. Some things [Simple Green among other products] are absolutely verboten for aircraft. So you end up with hot water (one hopes), a bucket of smelly soapy stuff, a scrub brush on a stick, and elbow grease. Oh, and the plane’s belly has to be done as well, so get ready to lay on your back on a creeper and scrub. A lot. Wear goggles – seriously, wear safety goggles. Solvent in your eye, or de-greasing soap in your eye, is pure h-ll. Trust me on this! Ideally, you won’t get firearm cleaning stuff in your eyes as easily, but I’m sure there’s a way if you work at it. You will end up with dirty bore patches, a bit of oil on your fingers, and the need to scrub your hands after doing firearms. No, do NOT take coffee or other things out with you when you clean firearms. Planes are a little different, but I’d still leave my drink of choice well clear of the bird and the cleaning effort.

Oh, and you’ll find that you need something odd. Leather cleaner for the King Air. You have no idea how many bottles of leather cleaner I went through. Not quite one a week, but it was close if we were busy. The air-ambulance had a white leather interior. The med-crew and some pilots wore combat-style EMS boots. Finding waffle-stomper prints on the upholstery was not rare. And of course just general dirt and grime got into the plane. With the firearms it is having at least two sizes of cleaning cloth bits, because the big ones won’t quite go through the smaller gun, especially if they have solvent on them. And a bit of oil for the moving bits (planes are supposed to take care of this themselves.*) And a silicone wipe for the wood and metal after you finish, especially if you are going to store the firearm for a while.

Oh, and there’s always someone who will be happy to tell you that you are flying/shooting wrong, and to show you the One True Way to do it. And if you are of the distaff persuasion, being associated with an airplane or firearm gives you +20 attraction points. Especially if you have a source of cheap avgas or ammo. Strange, that . . .

*Certain aircraft sling oil out all over themselves so that they go faster. Sort of self-lubricating in the atmosphere. Really. And if you believe that, I have an R-3350 that needs an oil change. The truck full of quart bottles is over there. I’ll tell you when you can stop opening them.

Slow to Smooth to Fast

The axiom is usually applied to shooting – “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” If you learn to move slowly, not rushing, not being herky-jerky with things, you become very smooth when you shoot, and more accurate than if you rush. After sufficient practice, smooth then becomes fast and accurate. I’m noticing this with my own practice, most recently last week, when I was taking my time and concentrating on not rushing and not trying to “beat” the folks two positions down who were shooting semi-autos. Everything flowed much better than it had in the past, even given that I was in pain and tired. Which means I need to practice more when I’m tired and at less than peak, because Murphy was an optimist.

The same thing applies to a lot of manual/physical skills. Flying in particular. I had several people comment that I handled the airplane very smoothly, not rushing, not making large physical inputs. In other words, I wasn’t whapping the stick back and forth to get a result, nor was I stomping on the rudder pedals. For one, doing that sort of thing can break the plane, which is considered poor form (unless you are a mechanic with house-payments. Then you can be very appreciative of the business generated by ham-handed aviators.) Two, it makes passengers turn various shades of green. Three, over-correcting tends to make things worse.

A lot of the first flight lessons is spent on getting students to relax, not strangle the stick/yoke, and to make small corrections smoothly. Even when a student accidentally snap-rolled a non-aerobatic aircraft, I responded quickly but smoothly, with the minimum control input needed to return the blue side to the top and the brown side to the bottom. Ditto when a freak outflow wind slapped my air ambulance plane into knife-edge flight. Granted, I’d had a lot of aerobatic training, so the world tipping over wasn’t new, just a surprise in those particular airplanes. I moved as fast as was appropriate, and smoothly so I didn’t break the plane or scare the passengers and med crew.

There are times to rush. There are even more times to move slowly and smoothly, which becomes quickly because you are not undoing or over-controlling. Firearms, planes, riding a horse or mule, working with power tools and hand tools, applying first aid . . . Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

Society too seems to have become herky-jerky, leaping from crisis to cure to cause of the week. Some people are just like that, but the world as a whole seems to have become more abrupt and “rough on the controls.” I won’t blame the internet, because everyone else already does :), but I suspect life would be far easier for more people if those running the place (or who think they are running the place) moved more slowly and smoothly. I know that rushing just makes me flustered and more likely to mess up whatever it is I’m attempting to do.

Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.