Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Book Review: Ask the Pilot

Title: Ask the Pilot: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel (Paperback)
Author: Patrick Smith: Airline pilot and Salon.com’s air travel columnist

This didn't seem like a book for me when I originally saw it in Barnes & Noble. I expected to find "which airline has the best food" and "Can I bring my triple blade turbo charged razor on board", etc. I was pleasantly surprised to find my assumption to be quite wrong.

The book is made up of questions that have been put to the author, and airline pilot by trade who cut his teeth hauling cargo, by his readers of a column he writes for Salon.com.While the daily flyer or the first time scaredy-pants passenger could certainly benefit from a few of the many reassuring facts about the safety of commercial aviation, even the aviation enthusiast (me, probably you) will find this to be a hard book to put down. Being one of those suckers for the romance of aviation, I was struck early on in the book as Smith proclaims he has a "limited fascination with the sky", and the the "sight of a piper Cub does nothing for me". To me this borders on sacrilege, but the author continues that his fascination since childhood has always lay with the inner workings of the airlines, from the mechanics to the paint scheme on the planes themselves, and the author does obviously have some appreciation for the "magic" of flight. He disagrees with those who complain about cramped seats, crappy air, and worse food, stating "Okay, flying sucks, but if you can’t value the idea of zipping to Hong Kong in twelve hours in a million-pound machine, there’s a problem."

Well said.

While there were a couple of questions and answers I skipped, they were all things I learned in ground school. (How a wing works, what the numbers on the runways indicate.) However, these basics are in small number, and mixed with much more fascinating questions. Maybe an airline pilot wouldn't take much from the book, but as a Private Pilots License holder, there was plenty in here to keep me interested. From Smith's personal tales from the airways to the ongoing Boeing vs. Airbus debate, from what the in cabin chimes mean to how much regional pilots can expect to make. (I feel for you guys.) Smith's approach is direct and to the point. He pulls no punches in his discussions of airline accidents, the causes of them and the likelihood it will happen again. He tackles airport security in a refreshing manner, opposed to the usual doomsday approach of the FAA. He covers proposed airline safety measures including gun-carrying pilots and a system that refuses to allow the plane into certain airspace, and all of it with an eye for detail and a biting wit.

I think Publishers Weekly summed this one up well. "Smith has both aviation expertise and the ability to write with sassy intelligence, which turns out to be a winning combination for this book on the weird and fascinating world of commercial flying".

You can buy it here.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Here comes a big purple weekend.

That big purple splat on the current satellite image of my neck of the woods is heading this way. The meteorologists are doing their usual song and dance about a "large snow storm", much to the pleasure of local grocery store merchants, who are stocking up on milk, bread, batteries and all the other items who's stock prices are controlled by weather at this time of year. For now, Weather.com predicts a mere 1-3 inches. Fine by me, I say, as I was heading out of town for the weekend anyway.

A weekend in Philadelphia is ahead. My girlfriend and I have a reservation at Ruth Chris tomorrow night, and a reservation at one of the finest hotels on Rittenhouse Square. Sunday brings a show at the World Cafe, and then home to catch some sleep before starting another work week.

This week has flown by. An inspector has been keeping us busy at work, and the week was nicely broken up by a well deserved day off on Wednesday, which I used to take my girlfriend and her 16 year old brother to the National Air & Space museum, or the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, as its formally known, near Washington Dulles International Airport. Ill save that for another post when I can provide some pictures of our trip, but I can tell you: What a day. What a place. If you have the means, you simply must visit.

Friday, February 03, 2006


The good Doctor posted recently about his first solo. I'd like to congratulate him on a job well done.

After reading his post, I decided to tell my solo story.

October 18th, 2002. I headed to the airfield not knowing what to expect. My instructor had made it clear that I was ready to solo soon, but I had missed my last 3 scheduled dates with him due to poor weather. Maybe, I thought, today will be more practice. Make sure I still have it all together before he sends me off....

After pre-flight, we strapped in and took off on runway 24. My instructor suggested closed pattern to shoot some landings. All of them went smoothly, as we had calm winds that evening, and I had made countless landings over the course of the Summer to the point where i felt like I could fly them with my eyes closed. (note to students. not recomended.) . The sun was still a good hour from dropping behind the Western horizon. On my 4th landing, my instructor looked at his watch, then at me, and said "Ok, your going to drop me off on the ramp. You ready?"

even though I had been expecting it, it was still kind of a shock. Ready? Ready for what!? Where do you think your going?!?

But I was ready. I felt confident. I wasn't the least bit afraid. I had done this with my instructor over, and over again. Ready? yeah. Im ready.

As we pulled up and came to a stop near the fuel pumps, my CFI took his seat belts off.

"The plane is going to jump off the ground a bit more than usual on take off. I dont weigh much, but it makes a difference without me in here. Other than that, do what you have been doing. Most of all, have fun!!"

I watched as he closed the door and walked away without looking back.

"S$%t. im alone in here."

Then I began to taxi back to 24. With no other traffic in the pattern, I positioned myself at the end of the runway and stopped. Looking over towards the FBO, my instructor was nowhere to be seen. I half expected him to be waiting close by keeping a stern eye on me. He was, of course, but he was inside the FBO, within ear shot of the radio, in case I needed anything.

Throwing in full power, I started down the runway. Then an odd thing happened. I started....singing to myself.

Yup. I Dont recall what it was I was singing. i just remember singing. All the way through rotation and lift off. Singing. I was checking the panel, keeping an eye on airspeed, all the things id been taught to do, except I wasnt usually singing while doing them. Go figure.

Three landings later, my instructor came on the radio while I was downwind for 24. "Having fun?" he asked. I replied that I was having a ball, and could do this all day. having completed the mandatory 3 landings, I had officaly comp;eted my 1st solo. "Well, you better make this landing your last for today. We're losing the light..."

.."Roger, full stop this time"

I made my last landing and headed to the tie-down. i was suprised out how calm I was. i had thought many times about this day, and always pictured myself emerging from the cockpit like Maverick after that final battle scene in Top Gun. Instead, I was calm and cool, but sitting firmly on cloud nine.

By now, the sun was setting on a perfect October day. I headed into the FBO and was suprised to find not only my instructor, but my friend Joe, who was a partner in a Cherokee 235 with my Father. They congratulated me, shook my hand and told me my landings had looked great. My instructor nodded towards the picnic table nearby. I turned to look, and saw 3 cans of beer stacked up on top of each other. The three of us opened our cans and took a drink, the first of many rewards for taking my flying lessons this far. Joe and Ron (my CFI) toasted my solo, and I couldnt have been more proud of myself.

After half a can of beer, my CFI reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pair of scissors. "You know what happens now!" they proceeded in the ritual of cutting the back out of my T-shirt. A tradition among student and CFI's after a first solo flight. Some say this tradition is rooted in the old days of flight instruction, before radios, and before a CFI and student would sit side by side. It is said that to get the students attention is the "in-line" configuration, a CFI would tug on the shirt tails of his student seated directly in front of him. Once you solo, you no longer need the shirt tug. hence the removal of your shirt tails.

I remeber Ron tossing the back of my shirt behind the counter in the office. I didnt think anything of it at the time. My mind was still at pattern altitude, where I had just flown an aircraft, all by myself. In the months and years to come, I would wonder what happened to my shirt. Other peoples shirts were hanging in the office decorated with hand drawn pictures of airplanes, and CFI signatures. I didnt know what had happened to mine.

3 years later, long after I had completed my check-ride and become a Private Pilot, I was celebrating my birthday with my parents. My Father came into the kitchen, where I was standing with my Mother, holding a nicely wrapped present for me. A big square shaped package decorated with bright blue paper. I had no idea what it was.

My CFI, sneak that he is, had given my Dad the shirt long ago. My Dad had taken it to his friend, a framer, who had it framed on a black background behind glass, and secured it in a beautiful hard wood trim. There was the back of my shirt, curling up at the edges, frozen in time for me to keep forever. Underneath my CFI's drawing of our airplane and its tail number read:

"Neil: First Solo: 10/18/02"

It hangs in my living room today, my prize possesion. Like a moment frozen in time for me to remember again and again, it will hang on a wall in whatever corner of the world I find myself in. You never forget your first solo.

Congrats again, Doc.

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