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.”


Which early?

There’s early, and early. My early is “arrive in place ten to fifteen minutes before time, unless otherwise needed,” or unless traffic might be a problem. Military early ranges from fifteen minutes before time to two hours before time (although the latter might be a trifle exaggerated. Or perhaps not). Sib’s early has shifted from “ten seconds before I’m too late, give or take” to “ten minutes before call time” to “thirty minutes early because Big City Traffic might strike.”

I get twitchy if other people don’t leave early enough for me to be early/on-time. Yes, it’s a control thing, and it’s not my fault, but still. Being prompt is polite. And if you have been left standing, panting for air after racing for a bus or train that departed without you, well . . . Especially if you are in Vienna, at night, and the end of that vehicle had a blue light on it. Guess what? You just missed the last one of the night. It’s going to be a long walk to find a taxi, or just a long walk. I darn near missed a boat that way, and had to jump from shore onto the moving vehicle. In my defense, and that of the people I was with, we were given the wrong departure time and the crewman standing beside the tour boss did not correct her. The tour boss thought it was amusing that the four of us almost had a massive logistical problem (trying to get from Tiny Town, Germany to Larger City by milk-train and bus, then find the correct pier with our boat.)

High school students seem to feel that early is “ten seconds before I’m officially tardy.” Except for the one who claws at the door to be let in ten minutes before students are allowed into the building.

Athena’s early is . . . I have no idea. I know that her “I want attention and food” generally comes at my “oh cat, the alarm won’t go off for another half hour. Hush!” Unless it is Caturday, when she gets up on weekday time, not weekend time.

I come from a military/aviation/medical background, where on time means on the specified time or before. Other cultures, especially ones that are farther in time from the introduction of the mechanical clock, time-clock, and “be here or be fired” tend to ease along and get there when they get there. After all, there’s sunrise, and cow milking if you have cows, and then you do whatever work needs to be done. The clock is not all-powerful and all-important, assuming you have a clock. This approach to things works pretty well in an agricultural society. Not so well in a society that wants to know exactly what time “mañana.”

But a lot of us, around the world, know what it means to run on “Lonesome Standard Time.”

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.

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.

“I Danced in the Morning”

A story from my not-entirely-misspent aerobatic days.

High in the rain-washed air, above spring greened wheat and grass, the dance begins. The nose of the small crimson and white biplane eases slightly below the horizon, and the rest of the plane rotates around it, stopping wheels high to check seatbelts and oil pressure.  The wings swing crisply upright once again, quickly turning to wards a box drawn in the air that only the mind’s eye can see. The silvery nose of the checker-winged Pitts swings left and right, searching for other airplanes. None appear to seeking eyes, and the plane banks towards the unseen box, dipping a wing three times in salute. Continue reading

Rotor and Wave: Do Not Want!

If you are a power plane, that is. If you are a glider, wave can be your long-sought friend.

One of the local weather guessers was pointing to “neat clouds” the other night, and called up a visible satellite image that showed them streaming off of Pikes Peak in Colorado and flowing in a wave-like pattern as far as the Panhandle. Anyone who has flown the Front Range is probably wincing right now, and maybe reaching for the “bag-in-the-back-of-the-seat-pocket.” Continue reading

When Clarifications Just Muddy the Waters

So, a week or so ago, a US federal agency issued a “clarification” about something that served to confuse matters farther. This is, alas, not rare in any bureaucracy, in part because of legalese and jargon, and in part because bureaucracies incline toward prolixity and complexity unless acted upon by an outside force, and even then clarity isn’t always as clear as one might hope. Continue reading

December 17, 1903

The first powered, controlled, sustained flight by a heavier-than-air aircraft took place on Kill Devil Hill, Kittyhawk, North Carolina. They needed a place with steady wind, away from people, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina provided both.

It wasn’t much by modern standards, but it started a revolution. People had dreamed of flight for thousands of years, and gliders had been around for a while. The problem was launching them. Birds self-launch. People in gliders could do that off of hill sides, if everything went right, but it wasn’t the same as true flight. Hot-air balloons could drift with the wind, and had been around for over a century. Again, control was a problem, as was fire. Gas balloons came next, hydrogen at first, but a light-weight propulsion unit remained, let us say, challenging to find.

Everyone remembers the Wright Brothers. Charlie Taylor is remembered only by rabid aviation buffs, and mechanics. Charlie Taylor created the engine that the Wrights needed. It was . . . rough. It had four in-line iron cylinders on an aluminium case. The compression ratio left a lot to be desired, and the water-cooled engine lacked pumps and other accessories. Steel crankshafts linked to the propellers via chains, one of which had a twist in order to make the props counter-rotating. The props turned relatively slowly. The life of the engine wasn’t all that long, but it worked and worked well enough for powered, controlled flight.


Charlie Taylor delivered the engine in six weeks from order to test run. It was under-weight, produced the required thrust power, and was machined entirely by hand! No one remembers him, unless you are an aircraft mechanic. The FAA also now has a Charlie Taylor Award, for the mechanic or maintenance inspector of the year, usually given for lifetime accomplishment.

For more information:



“Alle Sturmfeste Himmelhunde…”

When I was in university in Germany, I happened to visit the aviation and mechanical museum in Speyer on a day that they were having a book sale/flea market. I snagged a few titles, including a book of pilot songs. Germany being Germany, after you fly and have a few, or when the weather’s bad and you have a few, you sometimes start singing. Some are parodies set to Lutheran chorales, there’s the immortal (and unprintable here) “Hey ladi ladi,” and others. But one that really caught my ear was “Alle Sturmfeste Himmelhunde.” Continue reading