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There’s a reason you haven’t heard from me lately…

September 6, 2016

SAGINAW, Mich. – The lady at the Barnes and Noble checkout eyed my pile of Plane & Pilot magazines. “Is this all for you today?” It was her coded way of saying, “Are you certain you wish to buy three copies of the same magazine?” I stammered a little as I started to explain, but then gave up. “Yes, this is exactly what I came for,” I replied.

One copy for me to save. One for mom. One for the captain I’m flying with.

For those of you who subscribed to this blog and then wondered why there were few updates, you’re about to find out why. I haven’t blogged lately, but I never stopped writing. Instead, I saved everything, polished a few samples, and sent them to Robert Goyer, the editor at Plane & Pilot magazine.

I still kind of don’t believe it, but my second column is on page 18, a story I sat down and wrote on my nine-year-old laptop. If you run out to your own Barnes and Noble, or subscribe digitally, I’ll be happy to tell you about the time when I got furloughed from flying, and un-retired my toolbox for 10 months to keep food on the table. I went from breaking jets to fixing them, just like that. (Spoiler alert: I got recalled and am back to breaking jets again.)

I’ve been flying with a captain who reads a few other aviation publications and speaks of the columnists there as if they were his friends as he recounts their exploits. Tomorrow, I’ll hand him a copy of Plane & Pilot and he’ll find that he has a friend who writes a column!

Stay tuned… and pick up a subscription. No, I can’t comp them to you. I’m buying them myself!


Germanwings Fallout: Trust Betrayed

March 28, 2015

“Is everyone up front feeling okay today?”

The boarding door in the CRJ is just behind the flight deck. The passengers’ banter as they board floats right into our office. Normally, that question would be innocuous enough, but the timing was all wrong. First Officer Andreas Lubitz just plowed an Airbus into the side of a mountain, with the captain locked out of the flight deck in a failing fight for his life against the reinforced cockpit door. For the entire trip, it seemed everyone wanted to make small talk as details emerged about the horrifying plunge that killed all aboard.

Everyone, that is, except the pilots.

You see, pilots are a trusted group of souls. The company trusts us with their multimillion-dollar flying machines, true. More importantly, the public hands their loved ones to us with a reasonable expectation of safe passage. We usher your father home from war. We haul your parents down on a last minute ticket to catch the arrival of your firstborn. You now go over the river AND over the woods to Grandma’s house. A nation once crossed in months by wagon is now a few hours’ ride, coast-to-coast.

We dedicate our lives to this profession. Pilots spend years in training and college, accumulate thousands upon thousands of debt in student loans and spend years “paying dues” before we see a wage that even nearly reflects our responsibility.

There’s talk of automating airline pilots out of existence. That technology is still years away. For now there is no replacement for a weathered set of eyes that can scan the sky and know where the smoothest ride is, or read the ground for telltales of where to expect windshear as we near the runway.

Even once that technology debuts, we thought the public wouldn’t want to see it on passenger jets. That trust thing, you know. Besides, think of the possibilities for foul play if there was a central facility where every jet was controlled.

So it is that our ears reddened and our knuckles whitened each time someone pointed to the TV in our presence or waved the USA Today front page in our face.

At the end of every work day, we hit the power switch and our office falls into an eerie silence after hours of hearing the whistle of 310-knot winds over the windshield, the whir of cooling fans and the constant crackle of the radios. I flip on the flashlight for a final walk around the ship to make sure she’s ready for service tomorrow and then we head for the hotel. On overnights, there is no backstage door. We walk out the exit just like everyone else. We see the “Welcome home, Daddy” signs. We feel a pang as eyes search the crowd for their loved ones while we think of our own family back home.

Political pundits argue whether the Airbus crash was murder, terrorism, or a mental health breakdown. Among pilots, the answer is different. Lubitz betrayed us in an industry where trust is paramount.

Two Years Later: Still Hitched

December 1, 2014



On December 1, 2012, I plugged in the battery on my little Aeronca Champ model airplane and flew circuits outside the Oglethorpe University library with some airplane buddies hanging around. Inside, upstairs, Amy and her support group worked their way through applying makeup, donning dresses, and polishing off a small pitcher of mimosas. image

One of the music students donned a bow tie, unleashed his violin from its case and filled the air with beautiful music. We all stood around making those last minute checks of ties, zippers and gig lines. Nobody wanted to look a fool for a wedding.


“We got married in a library.” I still smile when I say that. My flight kit at work bears bumper stickers from bookstores, one of which proclaims “reading is sexy.” Invariably a flight attendant, TSA screener or random passenger asks about them every trip. I get a little moist-eyed because I get to tell them a love story, one of the few I know firsthand that don’t involve odd notions about loving flying machines.

At age 30, I ran back into a high school girlfriend. Amy and I met at a marching band contest and we wrote letters back and forth through high school. We dated a little, but went our separate ways before college and life scattered us to the winds. She noticed my name in a comment on a mutual friend’s Facebook wall and sent a request. Almost an hour’s drive from our hometowns, we wound up living less than ten minutes apart. We chatted and eventually got a bite of barbecue together. I invited her to a ton of get-togethers I hosted.

She finally accepted an invite to my “Not Your Mama’s Pampered Chef Party.” I knew by her third helping of my banana pudding that she was something special. And no, that’s not a euphemism.image

Our ages are pretty close, and we both came from similar backgrounds. We’d both caught a figurative midnight train out of town once we finished high school. I can’t say “we never looked back,” because family keeps us coming back, but we’ve both embraced lives that really could not have happened in our hometowns. Everyone asks, “Don’t you wish you’d been together all this time?” HECK, NO! We both had to go see the world, live through some phases that no relationship could survive, and grow into adulthood. We took vastly different paths, but wound up in the same place.

I thank God for that every  time I send much of a prayer along.

We’ve traveled, laughed and cried. It’s not always storybook material around the house, mainly because there are no story books about adults talking like children and being nearly as silly as we are together. We have our little struggles from time to time, but working through those are what make the good times even better.

Hey Amy: Happy Anniversary. We’ve put most of the Hollywood marriages to shame in terms of quality and longevity. I’m looking forward to continuing that trend.

Massive amounts of selfies follow. For that, I apologize.

Jüngmann aerobatics with Gordon

Jüngmann aerobatics with Gordon


Grand Canyon sunrise

Grand Canyon sunrise

Dunblane, Scotland

Dunblane, Scotland

Kitsap Peninsula, WA

Kitsap Peninsula, WA


Engagement pics at Mt. Cheaha, AL


That time we set the Biltmore's tree ablaze

That time we set the Biltmore’s tree ablaze

Sedona, AZ

Sedona, AZ






Sea Legs

September 24, 2014

NORFOLK- As we eased away from the dock, my sailing instructor, Kelsey, stood to start raising the mainsail as I held the bow into the wind.

“So is this your day job?”

“For a few more days, it is,” she replied.

“Then what?”

“I’ll be a mama.” Turns out, Kelsey was due in about 10 days. “By the way, that’s the Navy hospital over there. If I start having contractions, that’s where we’re headed.”


Just about to get to open water. We still hadn’t taken much spray over the rails yet…

A couple months ago, I wandered around Norfolk on a long overnight stay and happened across Sail Nauticus behind Norfolk’s maritime museum. There I met Ryan Newland, the program manager, who nearly sold me on a membership, until I remembered a key point: I don’t live in Norfolk. Membership in a boating club this far from home made no sense at all.

“What if I just wanted to book a boat and an instructor, could I do that?”

Two months later, I signed a waiver and buckled up my loaner life jacket. There was a front not far away, and the gray skies yielded a good eight knots or more. There’d be no sunburns today. It looked like a great day for sailing.

A Decade of Rust

My love of sailing is deep-rooted. A few of my friends had small sailboats I when I was a kid, and in my sabbatical from flying, I fell in cahoots with a fairly relaxed racing league on Lake Hartwell. Kelsey asked right away about what I meant by a relaxed league.

“Saturday morning pre-race breakfast was a Natural Light and a country ham biscuit,” I said.

“I’m surprised y’all bothered with the biscuits,” she said.

Maybe she’d raced with them at some point, too.

As we got the sails up and the electric outboard stowed, I noticed the old habits coming back into play. A gust would hit and we’d heel heavily, but I was generally on it and pointing back into the wind as we clawed our way up the Elizabeth River. Close hauled, we were angled just as far into the breeze as possible. I popped the main sheet and juggled it with the right hand while the left held the tiller. With each gust I’d give a little line on the main and dig in a little with the tiller.

Sailing is a lot of give and take, a forced relaxation that demands a keen eye on the weather and the world around. A matte patch of water on a glossy sea is a gust, and if you read its approach, you’ll seamlessly harness its energy with a minimum of fuss. The wake from a boat can be mitigated if you see it coming and nose into it instead of taking it beam-on.

In other words, it’s no wonder most sane folks prefer pontoon boats for their weekend party activities.

As we neared the point where we’d glimpse the golf course at Old Dominion, a K-Line container ship neared. “I know sailboats generally have right of way, but I’m pretty sure that fellow is a little less maneuverable than I am,” I said. Kelsey agreed. We laid off the wind and floated by. I’d never sailed in the vicinity of anything bigger than a 40-foot boat. “The wake isn’t too bad,” Kelsey said. “The tugboats are doing most all the work, and they spread the wake widely.”


The words “Caution, wake turbulence,” kept rolling through my head, but the wake off this freighter and his pair of tug boats was surprisingly flat.

We passed through the wake in the flattest water I’d seen all morning. In fact, as we neared the University campus, the waves started picking up. “Let’s turn downwind and find a better ride,” I said. Kelsey didn’t seem to mind that idea one bit.

Running with the wind and waves, the ride smoothed out and we talked about life around Virginia, travel, nomadic life (her husband is in the Coast Guard), and she asked a few questions about my day job with the airline.

I found myself working a lot less to manage the boat as my two hours wrapped up. I did ask her to dock the thing, though. “There are folks watching, and I never was too graceful about it anyhow.”


Ok, so two hours on the water in a decade didn’t have me ready to enter a regatta, but it was really good for the soul!

Adventure biker

September 24, 2014

As we got to our hotel in Baton Rouge, I spied a dirt bike parked out front. It was laden with extra fuel tanks, bags all over and a patina of dust that indicated it’d covered several miles.

Its license plate read Nova Scotia.



I told Andy, the captain I’m paired with for this trip, that I hoped the owner would come down for the manager’s reception.

“He’ll stand out like a sore thumb, either pale or burned to a crisp, and speaking much better English than we do,” I said.

I was right. He showed up for the free beer and he did stick out a tad. This is how I met Dave, who was on quite a ride. He’d just ridden down the continental divide from Canada to the Mexican border. He’s a retired Royal Navy officer who rides around the world… He told plenty of stories, some hair-raising, others heart-warming. Check out his blog at Potted Roads and Bumpy Tracks

Add this character in with the WWII vet I met earlier today, who landed on Omaha Beach with a rifle in his hands, and I’ve certainly had a great day of work!

Good Eats, Far From Home: Pine State Biscuits

December 28, 2013
Have you met my buddy Reggie? This is "The Reggie." Fried chicken breast, with gravy, bacon and cheese, bracketed by halves of a biscuit. The photo may make the biscuit look small, but it's only perspective. This is a serious chunk of food.

Have you met my buddy Reggie? This is “The Reggie.” Fried chicken breast, with gravy, bacon and cheese, bracketed by halves of a biscuit. The photo may make the biscuit look small, but it’s only perspective. This is a serious chunk of food.

I should know better than to seek out southern food in the Pacific Northwest. At Amy’s insistence, we laced up our walking shoes and hiked more than four miles from our downtown Portland hotel to the Alberta neighborhood, turning down public transit in favor of burning calories. Where we were headed, we’d need all the calorie surplus we could get.

A couple of years ago, three North Carolinians headed west with a kick-ass biscuit recipe, and a dream to establish a center of southern food and hospitality in the northwest. Welcome, friends, to Pine State Biscuits. Step in, place your order and grab a seat at the end of the bar, where you can gaze down the grill and assembly lines. What your eyes feast upon, your mouth will quickly also enjoy.

At Pine State, you’ll find the same kind of biscuits I fell in love with at Tupelo Honey Cafe, in Asheville, and I’ve made a decent copy of them at home. There is no shortening-the fat comes from frozen, grated butter, and I think their biscuit cutter was fashioned from a cafeteria sized soup can.

But even though these biscuits are pretty big around, they’re disproportionately tall.

Think edible skyscraper. Start with a Sabre-toothed cat-head biscuit, split it and put a goodly-sized fried chicken breast on it, about what you’d get on a Chick-fil-a sandwich. In the spirit of remembering that this is breakfast, two strips of bacon go on that. Wait, the girl is still throwing stuff on top! Here comes a fried egg and a slice of cheese, before she throws it under the broiler. Once the cheese melts, out comes this tower of southern breakfast goodness. Honestly, I can’t remember the total order of operations here, but if my geology class taught me about how to tell which sedimentary layers came first, the gravy went on my biscuit before it went in the broiler as well.


After a considerable hike, my bride had worked up an appreciable appetite. So had I. We found the right place to fix that problem!

Meanwhile, Amy ordered a much more reasonable breakfast: two eggs, bacon, toast, a biscuit with apple butter, and hash browns. The hash browns covered a plate the size of a cafeteria tray. As is our custom, we both ordered something the other liked, ate a bit and swapped plates at halftime. I cut my biscuit in half and laid my half its side, trying to decide how to eat it. A fork and knife seemed proper, but without a pitchfork, there was no way to shoehorn all the elements into a single bite.

So, in a very Man-Versus-Food moment, I cowboy’ed up and grabbed my half in a death grip, determined to get a bite with everything included. I found myself quite like a dog who caught the car he chased-I didn’t know what to do with my catch, so rather than put it down and have to regroup, I kept eating on it.

This biscuit looked like the object of a you-can’t-eat-all-that challenge, but it was great! I ploughed through my half and came out with a grin.

Want a conventional breakfast that spreads across the plate? Pine State has that covered as well. By covered, I mean, it covers the plate completely.

Want a conventional breakfast that spreads across the plate? Pine State has that covered as well. By covered, I mean, it covers the plate completely.

The girl behind the counter latched onto Amy’s accent. “I grew up in Charlotte,” she said once we identified ourselves at Atlantans. I wanted to march behind the counter and give Miss Charlotte a hug before we left. Amy’s half of the meal was great, and we walked out full as ticks, grateful for the long walk before we ate.

The location downtown is closed for a move; soon we will have to walk past one location to justify our gluttony at the other location when we come back to Portland.



Oh yeah, we will do this one again.

Flying the Harpoon

December 27, 2013

(Note: I’ve been away. Between training up to run a half-marathon, finishing college, work and life in general, it’s been hectic. I stockpiled some stories in the meantime, though.) 

Once upon a time, a nacelle would have blocked the view of the nose from the point of view.

Once upon a time, a nacelle would have blocked the view of the nose from the point of view.

As we walked into FBO at McCollum Field’s Preferred Jet Center, I glanced down to notice an embarrassing sweat spot down the front of my shirt. Yeah, it was a warm June day in Atlanta, but the perspiration outpaced the sticky, humid day. This was a nervous sweat, and it was mostly for naught. I’d perspired a barrel while flying an airplane that I’d perceived as a tiger and had discovered to be a pussycat. I don’t know which is most accurate, telling you I’d just flown a 700-horsepower Bonanza, a single-engine Baron, or a homebuilt aircraft that used a lot of parts from Wichita.

Walker Hester and I go back a ways: We traveled the air show circuit back in my late high school and early college years. Like many of my air show colleagues, we lost touch when I left, but the wonders of social media brought us back together. He’d flown A British Strikemaster jet not only in the air shows, but also over fortified positions as he conducted an aerial prison ministry. He ain’t a perfect human by any stretch, but he’s one of the good guys for. Walker was recuperating from an injury and three weeks of house arrest was about enough for him. “Let’s go fly the Harpoon tomorrow,” he said in a comment on Facebook. The next morning, we looked at the weather and agreed that the afternoon would be a good time to rally our efforts.

Now, if you’re scratching your head and thinking you’re about to read about us flying the Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon of historical record, that picture is all wrong. Erase your mental chalkboard and start sketching in some new ideas.


In case your mental chalkboard is frazzled out, here’s a visual aid: The Harpoon, at rest.

In Cheraw, South Carolina, Wendell Hall started out with an engine, specifically the Walter 601 turboprop. From there, he needed an airplane to hang it on. He studied a number of airframes, with an eye toward building a fast-traveling machine. His biggest challenge was finding a nose gear that would allow a monster propeller up front.

The end combination started life as a Beechcraft Baron 58. Wendell removed the nacelles, put a firewall on the nose and mounted the engine there. The Baron had extended wingtips to make up for the airfoil that was lost under the nacelles, so he clipped the wings about where they’d have been on a Bonanza. Granted, this is a rather simplistic take on a complex project, but you get the idea. The finished product looks like a turboprop STC’d Bonanza from across the ramp, unless you really know what to look for.
I knew some of what to look for when we started our walk-around. My eye caught rivets filling holes in the skin where the nacelles lived, and the tail stuck out for some reason I couldn’t rightly identify until Walker pointed out that the vertical surface was considerably larger than a Bonanza. Big tails, it turns out, come in handy when you’ve got a boatload more power than the factory ever envisioned.


This ain’t the throttle quadrant I’m used to seeing in Barons or Bonanzas!

The rudder trim tab, which Barons have but Bonanzas lack, also is a plus.

We taxied out with the condition lever pulled back into beta to save on brake wear, and he walked me through the steps. The fact he was wearing a cervical collar didn’t slow him down as he reached across to dial in the frequencies on the GNS430. We rolled out to the end of the runway and I remembered I might better tell the tower controller what direction we figured on going. I hadn’t managed a Garmin product since about 2004. This was my second time flying general aviation VFR out of a towered field since I’d started at the airline nearly six years prior. I was behind the plane without even entering the plane into the equation.

In other words, this is probably when that wet spot probably started expanding down my chest. Walker did a fantastic job as an instructor and babysitter, though. I called the tower when we were ready to go, and he coached me on the power settings he’d briefed on the ramp and taxi-out. “Just ease it up above 90 percent power,” he said. As we rolled onto centerline, I pushed the power up and really expected the takeoff roll to be a swerving line as we bounced from near disaster off the side of the runway. That big tail, though, kept her honest as we built speed and I lifted the nose wheel at about 60 knots, and held a comfortable attitude until the wings bit and we eased into the air at about 75. The acceleration was smooth, and continued as Walker flipped the switch and tucked the wheels into their respective wells. He held the prop to about 1800 rpm in the climb, and we pointed right at the base of a cloud off the end of the field. The vertical speed was strong, but before I could study it long enough to catch a number, I was pulling the power back to keep us under the scattered cloud layer. I quickly found myself flying the Harpoon by feel, and it didn’t let me down.
We made our way to Lake Altoona and I started a lazy lap around its shores. “Sure feels good to fly something without flight directors for a change,” I said. Passing over an area the real estate developers hadn’t yet laid waste upon, I worked through a series of clearing turns followed by 180-degree steep turns to the left and right. The control forces are heavy, but it’s an honest bird, and let’s face facts: This is a traveling machine. One doesn’t hang a turboprop on such an airframe to go do steep turns and lazy-eights.
The next thing I did was a lazy-eight.
I wrapped up at the top of a climbing turn, and dirtied the bird up for an approach configuration, so I could feel things out. Walker suggested a Vref of 79 knots and she felt rock solid. He warned me that her nose would try to fall when I pulled power off in the flare, and he was right. The Harpoon, maxed out on elevator trim, is pretty much trimmed for approach speed and there’s nothing left going into the flare. But, a Cessna 182 with two big guys and fuel is just as bad or worse. “A go-around would be a major re-trim,” was the main seed that he planted in my mental garden. I filed it away and continued.
Playing with power settings, I was tooling around burning 30 gallons an hour or so, and probably making 150 knots. I didn’t have a notepad handy, and it’d have gotten soaked in sweat or drool by the time we were done. When he’s going someplace, Walker throws another 10 an hour onto the blaze. At altitude that makes for about 230 knots true. Granted, he’s up high and sucking oxygen to make that happen. This was a day for smelling cow pastures and chicken houses, though.
I flew the pattern using the same basic gear and flap configurations that I play with at work, and the Harpoon didn’t protest. The speeds, of course, were slower, but numbers don’t scare me, so long as there are colored arcs to go by.
On short final, I slowed to 79 or so, and over the runway I pulled back gently with my right hand on the power and a little more powerfully with my left hand on the yoke. I really could have used a seeing-eye dog to help find the runway, though. I rounded out a little high and gently mushed down until we found asphalt with a little thud. It wasn’t beautiful, but it wasn’t scary.

“Your first attempt to explain this airplane was the best,” I said. “It really is kind of like half of a 90-series King Air.”
That’s a heck of a compliment for a airplane that an outsider could call “cobbled together,” if they didn’t understand the detail and work involved. Walker’s Harpoon isn’t a one-of-a-kind plane. Wendell Hall turned out a half-dozen of these birds until one of the FAA decided that taking scrap airframes from the junkyard, putting huge engines on them, and flying into the sunset completely defeated the idea of the 51 percent rule. Granted, Wendell probably had more man-hours invested in each of these planes than the average RV builder, but the Feds are Feds. Wendell apologized and swore he’d never do it again.

He’s still in Cheraw, but his latest project is bigger, faster and even sexier: The man is restoring a Chance-Vought F4U Corsair.

You can’t keep a talented man down.