• Bird strike!

Low level flying, designed to minimize your exposure to radar and ground fire, also exposes you to other threats. Enemy troops have been known to string cables across favored low-level ingress and egress routes. Friendly power companies string cables across valleys too, and they're just as lethal whether you're in military training or on a civilian joyride.

Birds are another serious threat. While I've joked that bird strikes from behind can be a problem in a vintage biplane, there's nothing funny about an engine swallowing a bird or two, or worse yet taking a bird through the windshield. Even a small bird clobbered at 120 mph creates a considerable impact. Broken windshields in Cessna 172s aren't unheard of, and at 450 knots....

There can be a humorous side to a bird strike incident too, though.

An A-6 was out on a low-level hop over Northern Oregon and radioed in that they had a problem. They'd hit a really big bird, they said, and even the supposedly bullet-proof windshield hadn't protected them. The bird actually came through the canopy and hit the bombardier/navigator full in the face.

Fortunately, in accordance with standard procedure, they both were flying with their helmet visors down and that afforded some small additional protection. Nevertheless, the B/N sustained some facial lacerations and was not at all pleased with the introduction to his fine feathered (ex) friend.

Slowing to minimum airspeed they soon began to worry that they'd freeze from the cold air. Fortunately, they were close to home and were soon safely back on the ground.

An impromptu debrief ensued on the ramp. The crew described the virtually instantaneous appearance of the bird, the explosion of guts and feathers, and the incredible roar and blast of wind.

Always happy to take advantage of an opportunity to make fun of each other, the B/N in spite of his condition, cracked that he thought the pilot was hurt too until he realize the blood on his partner was from the bird.

Asked if he'd thought to use the first aid kit, the pilot managed the last laugh. No, he said without hesitation, the bird was dead.


While birds are virtually impossible to miss if they're in your flight path, I avoid low level flight along beaches and other areas where birds are known to congregate. That said, we did narrowly miss a huge bird at FL230 one day while climbing out from NAS North Island enroute back to Whidbey.

• Know Your Equipment

Back in the olden days (circa 1970), after flight school at VT-10 in Pensacola, Naval Flight Officers were sent to NAS Glynco GA, near Brunswick, for Radar Intercept School if you were going to F4s, or Jet Navigation School if you were going to A6s.

At Glynco we all flew in T-39s, the Navy's version of the North American Sabreliner, a twin-engine business jet. First built in 1958, 62 were produced for the Navy with the sexy designator T3J-1 reminiscent of its famous blood kin, the Navy's version of the F-86 Sabre known as the FJ Fury. Eventually 52 more were accepted by the Navy and they all became known as the far less glamorous T-39A. At the turn of the century seven were still being used for Navy flight training, and the Naval Weapons Test Squadron, China Lake (NWTSCL) had one too.

Our navigation training was somewhat less interesting flying, presumably, than China Lake's, but maybe not. Navy flyers being, well, Navy flyers they may have used theirs for the same thing we did.

I remember one flight when we loaded 10 cases of Coors beer at Buckley Air National Guard base in Colorado Springs and flew it back to Georgia. At that time, Coors had an almost cult following, but it wasn't available outside the Rocky Mountain States so we were definitely a hit at the O' Club that night.

Don't worry, the taxpayers got there money's worth too. You have to go someplace on a cross country training flight after all.

This particular flight started at zero dark thirty with a weather brief, and the instructor's review of our flight plans. After a long night of studying and planning, the early launch was reason enough for several cups of coffee. Two hours later I realized that was a very bad idea.

Now, as a derivative of a business jet, you'd think our flying carpet would have had certain facilities. Nope. No potty in the back. The UC-45Hs we flew at flight school, built in the '40s, had trash cans in the back with a plastic bag in them, for crying out loud. Modern flamethrowers, you'd think, would have at least something equivalent.

Three hours into the flight I was having trouble concentrating.

With stronger than forecast westbound headwinds the flight was taking longer than planned, and I was seriously thinking about just letting go in my flights suit. Even dreamed up an, "I spilled my coffee" excuse.

I begged the pilot to forgo the obligatory shit-hot overhead break (and associated delay, never mind the Gs), and soon found myself duck waddling from the ramp to Air Ops where I learned the real meaning of "relieve yourself."

As I exited the "head" trying to look nonchalant, the rest of the crew was enjoying a good laugh with every one in the building, it seemed.

"Did you, harr harr, ever think, harr harr harr, to try the, harr harr, relief tube?"

Relief tube? In a jet? The idea had occurred to me an hour or so ago, but I dismissed it as impractical at best and dangerous at worst.

A relief tube is a hose with a funnel at the end that exhausts to the outside of the aircraft. In an, um...pinch, they can serve as a convenient solution to the circumstances I'd endured for the last 90 minutes or so. But I'd never heard of such thing in a fast moving jet flying high enough to need pressurization.

Wouldn't a hose exhausting into a good approximation of outer space cause problems for the pressurization system? Wouldn't wind whistling by the end of the hose at .8 Mach create a suction sufficient to...?

Ever since that experience I've had an almost fetish-like interest in knowing exactly what capabilities an aircraft has. While this circumstance was merely uncomfortable, you could break something if you're not up to speed on an aircraft's equipment.

• Air speed, AIR SPEED

My father-in-law from a former marriage was a Naval Aviator back in flying boat days. He wrestled big PBMs up and down the supply lines from Norfolk along the east coast to Coco Solo, Panama and on down to Bahia, Brazil, the jumping off point to the Azores and Africa.

He used to tell the story of his brief but memorable Pensacola graduation ceremony during the hurry-up days of WW2. The Admiral, with better things to do, made his speech short and to the point. "Gentlemen, I want you to remember three things. Keep your airspeed up, keep your airspeed up, keep your gawdamn airspeed up."


Flying from Chester County Airport (40N) near Philadelphia to the EAA's Spring pilgrimage at Sun 'n Fun in Florida, we'd discovered that flight planning shouldn't be limited to topics aeronautical.

When we arrived on a Saturday afternoon at our planned RON point in Rockingham, NC the line shack was locked, not a soul was around, and no self-serve fuel was available. So when we called a couple of local hotels, figuring we'd get fuel in the morning, and discovered there was no room at the inn thanks to a big NASCAR race, we knew we had a problem. My copilot and I, being neither virgin nor saint, respectively, knew that we'd have to get our ass on to another town.

Only one problem. We were down to about 40 minutes of fuel and it was going to be dark soon. A quick look at a chart, and we spied a place just 15 minutes away where the AOPA directory showed there was fuel and a hotel nearby. And no mention of a race track.

So back to the Travel Air for a quick hop down the way. There, Yankees that we are, sure 'nuff y'all, found room at a motel adjacent to the airport, and grits for breakfast the next morning.

At the airport, rarin' to go, we discovered that southern hospitality didn't include fuel before bible-belt church is over on a Sunday morning.

The sectional and AOPA directory indicated, for us heathens, that there was another strip literally just down the road, the other side of a tree line, across the border in Georgia. And they opened at 8 on Sunday.

With a measured fuel quantity of 6 gallons (we carried an official stick for just such measurements, meeting the FAA requirement as a fuel guage) we knew we'd be under the 30 minute VFR requirement, but within safe range for the 5 minute flight--and even the hop back if we couldn't land for some unforeseen reason.

When the biplane's engine sputtered and almost quit on take-off my former Father-in-law's story didn't come to mind. But the idea of keeping the airspeed up sure did. I pushed the stick of our Travel Air forward, felt her start to mush and pushed harder to get the nose further down. We gained just enough airspeed to flare for an abrupt landing. Pancaking down from a hundred feet, I'm sure, would not have produced such an uneventful outcome.

As we taxied off the runway the 220 Continental ran just fine. Back at the departure end of the runway we did an even more thorough run-up including a full power check. Everything looked and sounded good. Well, let's try 'er again.

Ready this time, when the same thing happened again I pushed hard to pitch the nose from about 30 degrees nose up to about the same angle nose down. We actually felt a little light in the seat, but the airspeed stayed pegged at 50, where it belonged.

My Dad taught me when I was a fledgling that airplanes talk to you, and that they can communicate a whole bunch if you'll listen. Two partial engine failures on takeoff qualifies, in my book, as being yelled at. Something obviously wasn't right, and any further attempts to fly until we found out what it was would be fool-hearty. Taxiing back to the ramp the engine ticked over pleasantly, as if to say, "Good lad, you listened."

First we'd have to solve the engine problem, then we could worry about the gas problem. Turned out they were one and the same.

As we wandered around the deserted airport, looking for someone with grease under their fingernails, we discovered an experienced looking fellow in well used coveralls tinkering on a Navion. When we asked if knew anything about round engines, he asked if we were the folks in the sputtering Travel Air. We admitted we were, and he answered simply, "Head pressure."

Asking for a bit of amplification he said, "Well, I heard you folks come in last night at dusk. And the fuel pumps are closed so I knew you didn't buy gas. So my guess is you're low on fuel. With the fuel tank in the fuselage, and a Continental with no fuel pump, you depend on gravity for fuel pressure. On the ground, with only a few gallons it works okay, but after takeoff, when you pull the nose up to climb, the fuel level and carb level are at about the same. No head pressure. Fill 'er up with fuel when the pumps open and she'll run fine." And she did.

Aside from that illuminating lesson, the more important one I learned from this experience was that when an engine quits on takeoff you have to really push to get the nose through what amounts to 60 degrees of pitch, if you want to maintain flying speed.

Like the man said, keep your airspeed up, keep your airspeed up, keep your gawdamn airspeed up.

• Genetics and Bureaucracy

The first Navy aircraft I flew in were older than I was, vintage Beechcraft UC-45J Bugsmashers. Piloted by recent fighter and attack jocks with a chip on their shoulder because of their assignment to a menial training job, it wasn't the most fun flying I'd ever done. Sir! No Sir! But it did put wings of gold on my chest, and a bunch of interesting experiences in my log book.

It all started when I was flunking out of college. Even though I was studying my ass off every day (and half the night) nothing seemed to be working, so I decided in desperation to try something different. Driving from the dorm out to the little local grass strip in a friends car I hoped that whatever I had to do to learn to fly would somehow lead to better grades or at least a non-college-graduate career. And, lo, by the time I'd earned my private pilot's certificate my name had actually appeared on the Dean's List (once, by the skin of my teeth), and I was close to graduation.

As college days came to an end in 1969 the war in Vietnam was going on hot and heavy, and the draft loomed in the future. While the call-up was based on a lottery I've always mistrusted the adage, "you can't win if you don't play," and favored the one that admitted, "your chances of winning are essentially the same if you play or not."

Self-determination rather than luck seemed a better course. The idea of slogging through a hot jungle where people try to kill you wasn't appealing. So thanks very distinctly to the inspirational even patriotic (but not very cautionary) Victory At Sea television series, I applied for Navy flight training.

Assured by the recruiter that I'd be sent to flight school after going to regular navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, I signed on the dotted line. Finding myself in an office in the Philippines six months later, not a cockpit in Pensacola, I was sadder but wiser. But less than a year later the Admiral I worked for wrote to a buddy who just happened to be CINATRA (Chief of Naval Air Training), and before long I was where I wanted to be, young wife and infant daughter in tow.

My eyes didn't meet the pilot standard so Naval Flight Officer (bombardier/navigator or radar intercept officer) training was my destiny even though I had a pilot's license in my pocket. I've never been happy about that convergence of genetics and bureaucracy, but it did mean I could Fly Navy, and that was better than driving a ship or sleeping in a foxhole any day.

Scheduled for an 3 hour cross-country radio navigation hop, I reported to the flight line with a bit of a head cold and a little stuffed up. Eager to fly and even more eager not to show any weaknesses, I ignored my sniffles. But not for long.

Climbing out of 2000 feet to our initial enroute altitude of 7500' my right ear felt like someone was trying to drive an ice pick in it with a hammer. I suffered for a couple of minutes, and scribbled a note to the pilot I had a medical problem and we need to get down now!

He gave me a puzzled look, I pointed at my ears. He held his nose and did a 'blow' demonstration. I gave him a thumbs down sign, the cut sign across my throat for "this has gotta stop," and pointed emphatically at the ground.

A former Douglas AD 'Spad' driver he got me down. Oh baby did he get me down. Chopping the throttles, he dumped the gear and flaps and did a split-S. I have a very clear image of looking out the windshield from a seat in the rear cabin and seeing green/brown Florida dirt up and blue/white sky down. Hard to tell what it did to the poor old engines and 100 knot Vfe flaps, but it sure fixed my ears.

I gave him a thumbs up and he passed a note back, "OK low? Continue?" I nodded yes, and enjoyed my first low level, really low level, navigation lesson. But that's another story.

Moral? Don't ignore the little things. Eager to excel, I didn't want a mere head cold to thwart a studly Navy flyer on a mission. Your sub-conscious can't talk, but it can whisper to you. Your body certainly can talk, and it'll yell if you don't listen up!

Blue skies and tailwinds,


• How much is 3 times 13?

If boring holes in neighborhood skies is fun, flying a 1929 biplane from coast to coast qualifies an adventure by any standard.

Committed to starting a barnstorming business near Philadelphia as an escape from the corporate rat-race, my new love and I had searched until we found an affordable biplane.

It was waaaay over there on the left coast, but after a recent coast-to-coast cross-country experience in a '58 Bonanza, we'd learned the way you do it is one leg at a time. Somehow that makes it more manageable psychologically. A lot of the "what ifs" go away when you only have to think in 250 mile hunks, the case when you're flying an 80 mph biplane.

With a mere 5 hours on the newly overhauled (and therefore questionable) engine, no radios, a wobbly 'whiskey' compass, and an antique altimeter for navigation, flight planning had as much to do with AAA as it did FAA. The former provided the road maps and the latter provided what we needed to know about elevation and no-fly areas. Help from a portable GPS wasn't available, they hadn't been invented yet.

After a couple of glorious hours over Sonoma wine country on aircraft fam hops and some landing practice, my darlin' and I set out with real trepidation on the first leg toward Monterey. Spectacular beyond belief because of surf, rocks, and mountains the coast was an unforgettable sightseeing route. However, the pucker factor was often off the scale given the complete lack of emergency landing options along much of the route.

Nevertheless, we arrived at our first stop without any problems, only to be accosted by a madman wanting to know what the hell we were doing flying his plane. After a few heated moments all around we figured out why he was carrying on. The only other blue and orange Continental powered 1929 Travel Air with a wood prop anywhere around, maybe in the world, belonged to him and was based at Watsonville where we'd landed.

After a good laugh at the coincidence, and lunch together, we set off on the next leg inland to Mojave, an aviation equivalent of Mecca, right up there with Oshkosh in my book of places you have to visit at least once in your life. It was 241 miles, and at 80 mph that made it about a three hour leg.

There is no pilot operating handbook for a 1929 aircraft, but those that know say a Continental 220 burns about 12.5 gallons an hour at 1700 rpm. Just what we burned on the first leg. So figuring 13 gph to be safe, I calculated at 3 x 13, we'd burn 36 gallons. With a 42 gallon tank we'd have 6 gallons and a legal 30 minutes reserve, more or less.

So off we went fat, dumb and happy. A late lunch made us fat (and a bit sleepy), lots of flat fields to land on if we needed them made us happy; but the dumb part was poor flight planning. Seemed like the sun was starting to get awfully low as we passed half way. Wonder what time sunset is around here anyway? Nice time to be thinking about that. Hmmm, wonder why there are all those windmills in this canyon. Anyway, we're getting close so better start calling on the handheld radio to see if we can raise someone, this being the first attempt with the contraption.

Damn, no answer. Nice time to find out the radio doesn't work. Start to circle to stay outside the airport traffic area. As we turn we damn near stop. Into the wind we're virtually hovering over one spot at cruise speed. Look at the windsock, it's just hanging here. Weird, blowing like crazy up here but calm down there? Gonna be some major wind shear on final.

Call the tower again. Again, no answer. Talk about crab angle! Getting kinda dark. Be nice if we had some lights in this crate. Geees, 3+15 since engine start. Be nice if we had a fuel gauge that worked too. This one's been stuck on 3/4s full for the last 2 hours. Oh well, can't see it any more in the dark cockpit anyway.

Make a pass downwind parallel to the longest runway (man, we're zippin' along). Waggle the wings while still calling on the radio. My darlin', a student pilot, in front turns around and gives me this, "What the hell?" look, and points at her watch. I nod and return a, "Yeah, no shit!" look, and go back to hawking the runway and looking for a signal light from the tower cab. Nothing. And the rotating beacon just came on. With no lights we're now officially illegal.

Screw it, we're going to land. Worry about the consequences later.

There's pavement everywhere. The windsock still looks droopy, but I learned a long time ago flying gliders that what the wind sock sez and what the wind does where you are often two entirely different things. Another attempt at radio contact, a careful look around for other aircraft. With this maybe my 10th landing in the bird it really bothers me that we're crabbed 45 degrees off runway heading as we start down final.

Same crab angle all the way to short final. I allow us to drift off to the downwind side then turn directly into the wind and land diagonally across the runway. Shortest landing roll I ever made, even on an aircraft carrier. The tires might have turned 3 times, and we were stopped. Nary a bump in the air all the way down because it's just as windy down here as it was up there. Another look at the windsock, and it wafts slightly in whistling breeze. What the...? Is that thing made of iron?

Regardless, the problem is how to taxi with the aircraft still flying, for all practical purposes. I could actually lift a tire off the ground with the big elephant ear ailerons, the lower wing tip almost touching the ground. First time was wind gust, second time was a test. Withering looks from the front cockpit both times.

Well, let's taxi off the active runway at least; then we'll decide what to do. So we fly/taxi to the ramp, and discover there are tiedown chains everywhere. Works for me. Let's get this bird shut down. Wonder how much gas we have left? Sweat drips from my leather helmet as I pull it off.

The tiedown chains looked like they were designed to moor the Queen Mary, and would secure a 747 in a hurricane. No way we could wrap them around our fragile wood and fabric wings. Ah, wait here's a solution. Brought along some tiedown ropes and big sod screws in case we had to spend the night out in the boonies somewhere.

So we used nylon rope to tie the N-struts to the huge tiedown chains, wrapping shop towels around the rope to prevent chafe on the leading edge. Walking away, in desperate search of a toilet, we listened to the ol' girl creaking and whistling in the wind. Of such experiences are friendships made—at least between pilot and airplane—but not necessarily between pilot and passenger.

In the line shack the gas boy answered two questions. Tower closed an hour earlier, and they have a "30 mph windsock" designed for wind not breeze. They'd talked about just hanging some anchor chain out there, it gets so windy. Next morning he answered another question. We put 41 gallons in that 42 gallon tank. After some quick calculating we discovered, sure 'nuff, she'd burned the predicted 12.5 gallons an hour.

What goes on here, how's come we almost ran out of gas then? Oh, wait. Three times thirteen is thirty-nine, dummy, not thirty-six. Duh.

Lessons learned? One, learn how to do maths. Two, do a better preflight--read the facilities directory and know what's what at your destination. But the most important lesson was that the FARs, while the law, are not the best rules to stake your life on. The VFR rule that you must have 30 minutes of fuel on board is not necessarily sufficient or sane margin.

Blue skis and tailwinds,


• Careful Isn't Always Enough

With a freshly minted commercial pilot's certificate in my wallet and maybe 300 hours in my logbook I confidently offered to fly a TV crew from Albuquerque to a remote Indian reservation. I was thrilled when my boss agreed to pay for the plane, fuel and my hourly wage.

What a novel experience--fly and get paid for it. It would be my first flying income after spending thousands of dollars on flight instruction. With eager fledgling enthusiasm, I even contemplated buying a white shirt with captain's shoulder boards, but that really seemed a bit overblown for a Cessna 182*.

Flight planning revealed one minor flaw in my scheme--no airport at our destination. No problem, the camera crew assured me, we land on the road there all the time. And you can, that's perfectly legal in New Mexico.

The place was surrounded by mountains, but the road/runway was straight and deserted. So after a cautious circle overhead revealed there wasn't a vicious wing-devouring roadside traffic sign lurking anywhere we landed uneventfully and taxied into town in a way that somehow seemed reminiscent of cowhands driving into town in a buckboard. "Mornin' m'am. Mighty nice day up here in these parts."

The camera crew went off to their shoot at the Indian school. As the day wore on it got hotter and I got bored-er, so I did what any a good professional would do, sit under the wing and ponder flying something bigger and better. What it would be like to fly a Beaver on this job? Could a DC-3 get in here? Naw, wheels would be wider than the road. Well, an Otter would be okay instead, if a Twin Beech wouldn't do it. Definitely gonna have to get that tailwheel endorsement.

But finally I dug out the POH to see what esoterica might be found to amuse me. Ah, here's something interesting. Density altitude (over 9000 feet), takeoff weight (right at gross), and runway length (not near enough). Gulp.

I paced off how far it was to the cattle crossing and fence that defined the end of the "runway"...twice. It wasn't any longer the second time. So when the camera crew returned frazzled from unexpected problems and eager to get home I gave them the bad news. People or equipment, take your pick. But I practice what I preach and was ready when the unexpected occurred. I pointed out a nearby cantina, and they voted unanimously to send the expensive rented video equipment ahead on the short 20 minute hop home. I assured them I'd be back within the hour.

Start was standard procedure, leaned for altitude. There was no taxi, we'd takeoff from essentially where we were parked on the dirt road. Run up, after a slight turn to avoid blowing sagebrush and dust through town, was by the book. All set. Belts tight. Seats, doors and windows locked. No cattle, horses, people or vehicles ahead. Check list complete.

We were airborne pretty darn near where I predicted. Cool. Am I good or what? Now, wing down, roll to the right to miss the mountain looming straight ahead. Excellent, engine sounds strong, gauges look good. Start the flaps up. Every thing's going just the way it's supposed to. And I'm being paid for this too! Then I went blind.

Late in the day, with afternoon sun directly in my eyes, I was solid IFR turning toward more mountains. No choice but to continue the planned circling departure. With no idea what radius turn would keep us out of the treetops, I did the only thing I could--turn as sharp as possible. I could die here, miss the mountain but hit the ground! Watch that stall speed! Why, oh why, don't small aircraft have an angle of attack gauge?

After another 30 degrees of turn the sun went behind the wing and I could see again. But for several heart stopping seconds I was in the hands of fate depending on the always correct adage: when all else fails, fly the plane.

If you think you have everything figured out, count on the fact that there's something you didn't consider. A corollary of that is when you think everything is going just fine, count on the fact that something is going to go wrong.

Be surprised if nothing goes wrong, not when it does.

Blue skies and tailwinds,


*You're right, that's not a 182 in the picture. It's a 1964 210 that my Dad flew. But it is on a road in Northern New Mexico. I wish I had a picture of another airport/road he used behind the mountains east of Santa Fe near Mora, NM. It was nothing more than a patch created by dragging a railroad tie behind a tractor through the piƱon and sage brush. Landing approach was north until just before you hit the mountain, then turn base. Continue until just before you hit the mountain, then turn final. Get it down, 'cause you ain't goin' around. Why? You guessed it, you'd hit a mountain.

• Experience is proportional to mistakes

Slipping down final in the biplane, eyeballing the tall grass wafting in the breeze on the runway ahead, I asked myself why there were brown places in the middle of the landing area. Worn spots in the farmer's seldom-used runway seemed unlikely. An area of hard pan where grass wouldn't grow seemed a possible answer, but....

Mentally committed to landing, I didn't go around and use the opportunity for a thrilling low-pass and a more important look-see at what was really on the runway.

Feathers and guts exploded from beneath the nose just as I touched down proving that airplanes and wild turkeys are not birds of a feather, they should not flock together.

The FAA inspector in the brilliant green Fleet that landed behind me thought the whole brown explosion was hilarious. The turkeys, I'm sure, did not. The friendly Fed pointed out, still chuckling, that the regs require a pilot to determine runway conditions before landing. Furthermore, he assured me, that is always a valid reason for a low pass at an uncontrolled runway, should an unfriendly inspector ever inquire.

If you're lucky, and you don't break anything or hurt anyone in the process, there are lessons to be learned from such experiences. Better yet, you can learn from the mistakes of others. And I have lots to share. I hope you'll come back, pass the URL of this blog on to others, and add a link to your site.

Disclaimer: even if you learn something from the mistakes and experiences you find here, you will make mistakes of your own. Mistakes are inevitable. How you handle mistakes is what's important. Flying (and life, for that matter) is all about what you do when thing aren't going according to plan.

Blue skies and tailwinds,