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MH370 tragedy is guaranteed to re-write the books

March 23, 2014

I won’t speculate about the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared on March 8. For the sake of the families I hope there is a resolution soon. What I do know is that MH370 will re-write the book on air traffic control, tracking airplanes and possibly piloting airplanes. Aviation as we know it, typically 2 pilots, physically inside an airplane, using mostly voice communications to an air traffic controller, will be history one day. MH370 will likely make that demise come sooner rather than later.

Outside looking in, it must be baffling to the general public that a large airliner can just disappear off the face of the planet, especially in today’s wired world where we can reach just about anybody anytime at the touch of a touchscreen. In reality, airplanes over oceans and in remote areas can easily disappear because there is no continuous, real-time tracking in most remote or oceanic areas (the North Atlantic being the exception). There is no civilian radar beyond a couple hundred miles off shore so air traffic controllers rely on periodic position reports, either by voice communication or satellite data link. Position reports are made at pre-determined points such as every 10 degrees of longitude, every hour, or at specified navigation fixes. If a plane for some reason deviates or changes course, nobody on the ground would know until the pilots or the airplane’s data link reported the new course. Many sophisticated military surveillance systems exist around the world but those are looking for threats, not tracking any and every civilian airplane.

There are many systems to make sure pilots and controllers can stay in touch at all times: VHF and HF radio, SELCAL, data links, radar, and various emergency systems. However, in today’s aircraft most of these systems depend to some extent on the pilot’s interaction with them.

Certain accidents in the history of aviation were a catalyst for industry-wide changes: the crash of ValuJet 592 led the FAA to overhaul how it certifies new airlines, Air Florida flight 90 led to more stringent de-icing procedures and a new emphasis on CRM (cockpit resource management). More recently the crash of Colgan Air 3407 compelled the FAA to change experience and certification requirements for airline pilots.

I’m sure the Malasia Airlines MH370 tragedy will have a similar if not greater impact on aviation. MH370 will greatly accelerate the implementation of real-time satellite data links, implementation of communication and navigation systems that are independent of pilot action, and possibly in the future remotely piloted aircraft. If you look at the military use of drones, airline pilots could soon be sitting in a secure ground location, “flying” their airplanes through remote data entry and monitoring – with automation or supervisors overriding any problematic inputs. Autopilots have long been able to do the physical work anyway.

I imagine most of us would be reluctant to fly in the back of a remotely-controlled airliner, those pilots in their sharp uniforms smiling at the gate always gave us that confidence, that they would be there if all else failed. Now we may not be so sure. If MH370 in the end proves that the pilots can be compromised, may willfully cause a tragedy, or can be overtaken even in the post 9-11 era, pilots may soon go the way of telegraph operators – replaced by technology.

I know the counter-argument would be that technology can be compromised as well. If a datalink to a remotely controlled airliner was compromised we’d have the same problem. However, that has never happened yet. On the other hand hijackings have happened and pilot suicides are largely believed to have caused the crash of EgyptAir flight 990 and SilkAir flight 185. If there is a knee-jerk reaction we only make it by looking back, not looking forward.

None of this are new ideas. I submit that the greatest obstacle has not been cost or technological challenge but rather a psychological reluctance on our part. A reluctance that may be about to change.


Just a pretty picture of Kangerlussuaq or Sondre Stromfjord airport – BGSF.

I’m pretty sure I own the world speed record in a Cessna 172

March 2, 2014

Groundspeed, that is. Between the Independence factory and Shreveport Louisiana, during the airplane’s very first flight after delivery, we saw groundspeeds over 180kts. I don’t remember the actual top speed I saw on that flight but I remember 182kts and 188kts. I’m not sure but it seems to me either 188kts or 192kts was the top groundspeed during the flight. If you’re not a pilot or not familiar with the Cessna 172, the airplane’s typical cruise speed is about 125kts (~140mph).

The flight was our first leg on a delivery from the factory to South America, middle of winter a couple of years ago. We departed the factory a day after a storm system moved through and our route of flight to Shreveport was directly along the direction of the winds on the back side of the storm. Here in the Northern Hemisphere the winds circle the low pressure system in a counter-clockwise manner. Not very often do you see winds that strong (in excess of 50kts) at the altitudes a C172 flies and usually when the winds are that strong at 10,000 feet the weather would be too bad to fly in. In this case the storm was well ahead of us, we barely hit a few thin layers of clouds and had VFR with reasonable winds at the surface.

After we got to Lima a few days later I scrolled through the history on the G1000 and saw the top recorded groundspeed. I was in a hurry to get back home but I should have thought to stop and take a picture of the display. At any rate it struck me how this airplane – given the life expectancy of your typical C172 – may fly the world over for the next 40+ years and possibly never see groundspeeds in that magnitude again. Never come close to the speed it reached on its very first flight out of the factory. No matter how many C172s I may or may not fly again in the future, I doubt that I’ll ever see groundspeeds that high in a C172 again.

Cessna 172 flying down the Bahamas

Cessna 172 flying down the Bahamas

The Andes mountains in Peru on our G1000 MFD

The Andes mountains in Peru on our G1000 MFD

Night landing checklist

May 8, 2013

I’m a very lucky guy in many ways. I have my family, my health, a good career. I’ve been very blessed.

One unusual way that I’ve been blessed is that coming up on middle-age – OK, if you ask my wife I’m already there – I now have the best eyesight that I have ever had. I look at things like mountains in the distance and marvel at the detail that I see. Without glasses I see much better than I ever did when I used glasses. And I didn’t have eye surgery either, my eyes just got better.

I never used glasses as a kid but I sort of knew that my eye sight was a bit less than that of other kids. When I got my first medical I got the dreaded “holder shall wear correcting lenses” limitation and my first pair of eye glasses. Over the years I changed my prescription once and got another set of glasses. I always got the self-tinting kind, the kind that gets darker or clearer depending on the light, no sunglasses needed. I thought that was cool. About 4 years ago my flight physicians started to notice my eyesight had gotten about the same without glasses as with my glasses. I get 2 medicals a year now and after about 3 or 4 times getting my medical without the glasses, I tossed those puppies and started flying without.

All this to say that I’m still barely getting used to having sunglasses in the cockpit. Before I didn’t need them, my self-tinting glasses (I think there must be a real word for that) did the trick.

Below is a video we shot of our night landing at Djibouti last September, during a ferry flight to Nairobi. Very uneventful, the way things should be. The eventful part happened about 15 minutes before the landing, when we started our descent to Djibouti. We’d been flying over the Red Sea and the Sahara desert most of the day (coming from Jeddah) and I had donned my cool pilot-style sunglasses.

As we started our descent to Djibouti I had the worst time seeing the instrument panel. I’m flying from the right seat and could barely read the airspeed indicator on the other side. To make things worse I remembered reading a note on the Djibouti approach plate about using extreme caution because the runway can easily be confused with a city highway at night. I’m fussing at Ted: “turn up the panel lights, turn up the lights”. I fussed about the panel lighting in the older Cessnas that just isn’t very good but something in the back of my mind kept telling me this had happened before and the solution was real easy. But what the heck was it?

Then I remembered: my night landing checklist got a new item since I don’t wear those self-tinting glasses anymore:


Then I saw the runway from miles away :)

When the desert blooms

April 20, 2013

I just took a Cessna 172 from Miami to Santiago de Chile. It was a nice trip, 7 days in all. Bahamas to Jamaica, Colombia to Ecuador, Peru and finally Chile. My last fuel stop was in the Atacama desert in Chile, about 3 hours north of Santiago by C172. Deserts can be beautiful places and Atacama is no exception.

I make a point of bringing up the things I like about each place in conversation with the local people at the various stops on my flights. I get a chance to see many beautiful places – and places not many tourists go – but in some of these far-flung places life isn’t all that easy. So I make a point of showing my appreciation for their service, the hospitality, etc.

On this stop, when I was chatting with the refuelers I mentioned how beautiful the desert looks from the sky. One of the fuel guys responded that the desert is REALLY BEAUTIFUL when the desert is in bloom, it has all kind of colors and looks just amazing. I asked when that happens and he said when it rains. So in my silly world of seasons I asked him what time of the year it rains to make the desert bloom, which months of the year? He looked at me like pitty you poor foreigner and replied: “Not which months, only when it rains, the last time it rained was like 3 years ago.” Then I got it :)

* * *

Three words more sacred than I love you: “ILS and avgas”. Atacama Desert (SCAT) has both ILS and avgas. Trust me, fly some light airplanes around far-off places and you’ll agree about the 3 words thingy.

Landing at Desierto de Atacama

Landing in the Atacama desert “Desierto de Atacama” Chile

Refueling in the Atacama desert

Refueling in the Atacama desert. C172 ferry flight to Santiago, Chile.

Smoke in the cockpit

January 16, 2013

There aren’t many worse feelings than smoke in the cockpit. It’s only happened to me once, many moons ago. As I was reading the news of the JAL and ANA grounding of their B787 Dreamliners I immediately thought back to the one awful moment that I realized there was smoke in the cockpit.

I’d been warned.

I was a lowly flight instructor in the days after Sept 11, 2001. Flying jobs were next to impossible to find so I was “biding my time” as a flight instructor in Merritt Island, Florida. My flight that fateful day was to do a flight-review with an 80-something year old lady. She was a retired US Navy officer and I’d been told she had a bit of a strong character. Her doctor had told her she shouldn’t be flying any more but she decided to come to our flight school to prove otherwise. I’d never flown with her before but other flight instructors urged me not to sign her logbook ( for a flight review ) if I wasn’t comfortable.

My “student” had her own airplane, an older Cessna 172. She was impatient and went to pre-fly the airplane while I was taking care of some paperwork inside.

It was my own fault.

My student started her airplane and pulled up in front of our flight school office. I jumped in without stopping the engine. In an older Cessna it’s hard to see if the battery is charging once the airplane is running. The generator charge is something that you should check immediately after starting, it’s on the after-start checklist. I wasn’t in the airplane when it was started. I should have stopped and started over but I didn’t.

We took off and were climbing out to the practice area to the West of the airport when I noticed the generator field circuit breaker had tripped. Something I’d been taught long before is that you NEVER NEVER NEVER reset a tripped circuit breaker in flight unless you absolutely need that missing system to avoid a grave and imminent emergency.

So I pushed in the generator field circuit breaker.

To this day I don’t know what made me do that. I think because I didn’t do the entire pre-flight and before-start checklists with my student, I figured that she simply didn’t check the circuit breakers. For whatever reason, I just pushed in that circuit breaker. As soon as I pushed in the circuit breaker I said to myself something along the lines of “What the devil did you do that for?” Maybe I simply blocked out the idea that airplanes do catch on fire because most all of our flights are always routine, most airline pilots fly an entire career without dealing with a serious system emergency. Either way, it was a pull-type circuit breaker so I didn’t worry about it.

For about 20 seconds. That’s when electrical smoke started to fill the cockpit. I reached over to my old friend the generator field circuit breaker and pulled. And pulled. And pulled.


One reason to never push in a popped circuit breaker is that the breaker may weld itself shut when you push it back in. This one did. Smoke kept filling the cockpit. I practically rolled the airplane on its side doing a 180 back to the airport. We were only minutes away from the airport and over nice open fields. When we approached the airport is where I had to make a decision. The last few miles to the airport were devoid of suitable emergency landing sites. I either had to continue or set down in an open field. Our smoke situation wasn’t getting any better but I figured I had some time. We continued to the airport and landed safely. I later learned the airplane was an awful mess of years of neglect and “pilot / owner maintenance”. The generator had been jerry-rigged to basically by-pass the voltage regulator. More RPM meant more voltage in direct correlation.

* * *

I’m sure Boeing will figure the 787 issues out eventually. I’ve done some work with New Product Introduction (NPI) at GE Aircraft Engines and there are always some growing pains. Having said that, there aren’t any worse feelings than smoke in the cockpit.


Flying over the Egyptian desert. Lots of good emergency landing room here…


October 3, 2012

NOTE: “Iceman” is not the person in this story’s real call sign. Everything else in the story is true to the best of my knowledge. “Iceman” asked me not to use his real FAP call sign so in honor of the “Top Gun” movie re-release I replaced the actual FAP call sign with “Iceman”.


On final for Rwy 19 in Piura

We turned final for landing in Piura, Perú (SPUR). I had been doing most of the radio work since we left Independence but my copilot now called Piura tower using his old Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP) call sign:

“Piura tower, Iceman turning final Rwy ONE-NINE.”

The runway shook and the dust blew away.
Sleepy airport hangars jumped to attention.
Saggy roof lines straightened out.
Iceman is back!

* * *

That morning we had departed from Cali and stopped for fuel in Guayaquil. We had run into some issues in Colombia and after a few stressful days in Colombia we were happy to be back in the air for the last remaining legs of our flight to Lima, Peru.


Approaching “ANGEL”, the navigation point on the boundary between Colombia and Ecuador.

The airspace boundary between Colombia and Ecuador along the route we were flying is a navigation point called “ANGEL”. As we approached “ANGEL” my copilot asked if the Galapagos Islands would display on the Garmin G1000 map. I expanded the range on the G1000.

When the Galapagos came into view on the map Iceman said “I flew there.”


I sort of shrugged. Many people visit the Galapagos nowadays. Patricia and I have been wanting to take a vacation there ourselves.

“I flew to the Galapagos in the Mirage during the war with Ecuador.”

I looked at Iceman in disbelief. Then he told me the story of the FAP Mirages that flew to the Galapagos during the Paquisha War in 1981:

There had been a long running territorial dispute between Peru and Ecuador. The dispute was not formally resolved until 1998. The Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP) had historically been one of the strongest air forces in Latin America. When the Paquisha War broke out, Peru received intelligence that the Fuerza Aérea Ecuatoriana (FAE) had moved many of its aircraft to the Galapagos as a defensive maneuver. To verify the intelligence received, the FAP decided to send a Canberra reconnaissance aircraft (a variant of the venerable English Electric Canberra bomber) to the Galapagos. The unarmed reconnaissance aircraft was to be escorted by 2 of the FAP’s Mirage 5P fighters.

At the time the FAP had moved most of its aircraft from airbases near the Ecuadorian border back to Chiclayo, further away from the border. The 2 Mirages were to take off from Chiclayo, fly to the Galapagos and return to Chiclayo. Due to the long distance of the flight and fuel weight, the Mirages carried no weapons other than ammunition in their guns.

When the aircraft reached the Galapagos the reconnaissance Canberra quickly took its pictures and turned back to Peru. The Mirages lingered over the Galapagos to provide protection for the departing Canberra. The FAE sent up 6 interceptor aircraft, 3 FAE aircraft pursued each of the FAP Mirages.

Iceman briefly engaged the FAE aircraft but outnumbered, with no armament and precious little fuel there was nothing the Mirages could do. Iceman dove down to “the deck”, zigzagging just above the Pacific Ocean to shake the FAE aircraft. The FAE aircraft gave up pursuit.

The FAP Canberra had now reached a reasonably safe distance from the target and the FAP Mirages turned back to Chiclayo. When reaching Chiclayo the Mirages were desperately low on fuel but due to the war time traffic they were forced to hold before landing at Chiclayo.

By the time the Mirages were finally cleared to land they were so desperately low on fuel that Iceman and his wingman executed their break and landed simultaneously, in opposite directions, on Chiclayo’s only runway. On the runway both aircraft ran out of fuel and had to be towed back to the hangars.

This is the story as told to me by Iceman himself. I believe every word he said.

I asked Iceman if he realized how dangerous the mission was beforehand. He replied that it was a volunteer mission, when you really believe in something you are willing to give everything for it.

Iceman shook his head.

“Man, I was only 24 at the time.”

Fascinated though I was, I wanted to break the serious mood so I said “Just be sure not to tell anybody in Guayaquil about this, ok?”

Guayaquil is a nice place, I’ve stopped there several times now. The service is great, the people are friendly. Peru and Ecuador are like Portugal and Spain nowadays, or Ontario and Quebec. It’s practically unimaginable now they fought wars as recently as 1995. But I’m sure some of the people we ran into at Guayaquil airport had to be on the opposite side of the conflict. Maybe the weather briefers we shook hands with, the marshallers, the fuel truck drivers, who knows?

I never got to ask Iceman, what would he do if he ran into one of the guys who was sent up to shoot him down? Maybe some AeroGal pilot, or one of the LAN Ecuador crew who were parked next to us? Would you shake their hand and have a beer?

What could you do?

Iceman left the FAP 20 or so years ago and I don’t think he’d flown any aircraft from the time he left the FAP until he accompanied me on this flight to Peru. But once we got to Piura, tower controllers who probably weren’t even born when the Paquisha War happened, they knew the name Iceman with great respect.

Iceman spent most of the time since he left the FAP in the US, he has a family, a job, a business. I wonder how many people never knew what an extraordinary thing he did. How many guys at work shook his hand not having the faintest idea?


On the ramp at Guayaquil, Ecuador (SEGU)

Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP) Canberra

Fuerza Aérea del Perú (FAP) Canberra bombers, now mothballed at Pisco airport.


Map of route Chiclayo to Galapagos.

fuerza aerea peru fap mirage

Fuerza Aerea Peru (FAP) Mirage

Route picture courtesy of Great Circle Mapper. Mirage picture from here.


September 24, 2012

Alternate title: to Nairobi by Cessna 182

I was fortunate to have an opportunity to meet Ted and Hanne of the Hanne Howard Fund recently. Ted contacted me some time ago when he began planning to fly his Cessna 182 from Ottawa to Nairobi. I agreed to fly with Ted as ferry pilot / safety pilot in his Cessna 182, nicknamed “48-Fox”.

Ted kept a blog detailing each of our legs at I’ve been back home now for about 2 weeks and just thought I’d reflect on the trip here, not in a trip-report type format, just some details, the good, the bad and the trivia:

The trip got off to an ominous start:

45 minutes into the 70+ hour flight I noticed that we had lost the alternator. We were just north of Montreal at the time and had climbed to 9500 feet VFR above some scattered cloud layers. We circled down below the Montreal class B and limped into Lachute (CSE4) – which is a very good general aviation airport.


48-Fox with alternator problems at LaChute airport

We got the alternator repaired in short order and continued on our way. After this we had no issues with the airplane the rest of the way.

Nada, zilch, nothing.

Think about that for a moment: We flew a 1966 Cessna 182 over the Atlantic Ocean and through 3 continents. 70+ flight hours in temperatures ranging from -15C over the Greenland icecap to over 40C in Jeddah. Rain, mist, gravel, desert sand, you name it.

“48-Fox” was designed in the 1950s – when my father was a teenager – and built in 1966. Nearly 50 years old she flies like a new airplane. Think about the draftsmen who drew the blueprints by hand. The engineers who calculated rivet joint shear loads by slide rule. The things we humans can accomplish are nothing short of amazing. (*)

The route of flight:

We flew without ferry tank, keeping the legs 750nm or less. The hardest part of the routing was to find avgas in Africa. Here is our complete route:


Map of Cessna 182 ferry flight to Nairobi

Image courtesy of Great Circle Mapper.

The stop in Graz looks like a “dog-leg” because we intended to route to Corfu (Greece) after Graz and stay inside the EU/Schengen zone (to facilitate transit). However, due to weather and traffic in Corfu we routed via Nis (Serbia) instead, hence the “dog-leg”.

Most expensive avgas along the route of flight:

The most expensive avgas was in Djibouti, where we paid $2,160 for two 55-gallon drums of avgas. Do the math if you wish. I can sort of understand the cost since Djibouti is the only place in a 500 mile radius that has avgas and the refuelers told us they sell avgas on average once every month, or less.

Honorable Dishonorable mention goes out to Kuujjuaq (CYVP) where a drum of avgas is now north of $750, an increase of nearly 50% in the past 2-3 years. By comparison avgas in Iqaluit (CYFB) is around $350 per drum.

The scariest part of the flight:

There were some scary moments, thankfully, none while flying (**):

In Denmark our taxi driver was proudly showing us some of the sights along the way to the hotel and while distracted we nearly rear-ended a stopped car. In Jeddah we returned to the hotel (after having eaten a piece of chicken that, in Ted’s words, “looked like it had been chased here from Cairo without having a drink of water”) when our driver made a U-turn in ungodly amounts of oncoming traffic.

And in Denmark there was that scary moment when I was brushing my hair in the morning, admiring my good looks in the full-length mirror, when an ugly-looking spider came rappelling down from the ceiling. I jumped and screamed like a little girl :)

The young lady at the hotel desk told me spiders are common but not dangerous in Denmark. Then again, this was the same young lady who called our taxi that nearly took us to the wrong airport so take it for what it’s worth.

Most difficult part of the trip:

The go/no-go decision on takeoff in Iqaluit was the most difficult part of the trip. The weather in Iqaluit was very low IFR and forecast to stay that way for the foreseeable future. The weather was such that you really don’t want to fly in it but there were also no legal/operational considerations that would prevent us from doing so. The low IFR weather was localized and we had good weather over the ocean. Being mid-August we didn’t want to delay very much because good weather over the North-Atlantic gets very scarce after the end of August.

Once my decision was made the takeoff out of Iqaluit was uneventful.

The worst part of the trip:

We got stuck in Jeddah for 2 days because I miscalculated our fuel on takeoff and realized we wouldn’t be able to reach Djibouti safely on our first attempt. After returning to Jeddah we found out we were stuck there because our fuel stop (Rabigh/OERB) was closed the next day due to the Muslim weekend. All told the extra cost for fuel, handling and hotels was very painful.

The only other bad part of the trip was our stop in Crete (Greece). All of the people we spoke to there are just disgusted with the politics of their country and the bad financial situation Greece is in. One taxi driver said he was emigrating to Canada. It is really sad to see such a beautiful country with such a great history affected so badly by a few arrogant dumbasses in suits. For what it’s worth, the Germans didn’t preach austerity back when Euros were plentiful and the Greeks were spending their Euros on fine German automobiles.


On final to Iraklion (LGIR) airport, Crete.

The best part of the trip:

There were a lot of nice moments. I always enjoy the flying, even though I’ve done quite a few ferry flights now, I love the flying, I love the scenery. But I have said it before and I will say it again: the best part of this job is not the flying but the great people I get to meet along the way.

We stopped in Halifax to spend a day with Ted’s family. Even though I was only a guest, sort of outside-looking-in, it was obviously a very nice moment.

We refueled in Wroclaw (Poland) where we met with my friend Kamil. I hadn’t seen Kamil in a couple of years since we flew a Mooney Acclaim from Chicago to Wroclaw together. It was great seeing him and seeing that he is doing well, flying a beautiful corporate aircraft.

Another nice moment was meeting Brian Miller and some of his fellow US Navy ATC specialists in Djibouti (Camp Lemonnier). Brian helped us on his own time with some issues at the Djibouti airport and then was kind enough to send an email to his friends/contacts to let them know of the good work Ted and Hanne do in Nairobi with the Hanne Howard Fund. Nothing but respect to Brian and the men/women who serve with him.

The very best part of the trip has to be the reception we received in Nairobi. Arriving later than we planned after a long day of flying we were not expecting a big welcome but were happily surprised by about 20 kids from the Hanne Howard Fund project who had waited over 2 hours at the airport to meet us.


Welcome at the Aero Club in Nairobi

Most important new words learned:

Jambo: Swahili for “hello”.

Tusker: as in, it was time for a couple of Tuskers when we finally landed in Nairobi!

You had to be there moment:

While having a late dinner in Roskilde (Denmark) we happened to be seated next to 3 very inebriated people. An attractive 30-something woman was literally too drunk to walk (she fell down on the sidewalk) but somehow managed to do a number of push-ups, in some apparent attempt to impress her companions, or something.

You just had to be there.

And for some dry humor:

I uploaded this picture on FB of our landing in Aqaba, Jordan. A pilot friend of mine commented:

“Watch out the tree!”


Cessna 182 landing at Aqaba King Hussein Intl Airport (OJAQ)


(*) Ted made sure the airplane was ready for the trip by extensively upgrading and servicing the airplane before our departure but the fact that the airplane performed so well is also very much a testament to the design of the Cessna 182.

(**) I don’t say this with a “nothing can happen to me” bravado, only to point out that a ferry flight is nothing more than a series of back-to-back cross-country flights. Some legs require special planning and precautions due to the distance between airports, lack of ground facilities in remote areas or weather but there is no reason if a pilot complies with the relevant procedures and precautions for each leg that a ferry flight should be more dangerous than any other flight. Above all else, if you are careful with winds/weather and conservative with fuel/range, the ferry flight will be uneventful.


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