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Teaching a homeless man to fly

November 30, 2014

Years ago I worked as a flight instructor at a small flight school in Florida. Our customer base ranged from teenagers who aspired to become airline pilots or aeronautical engineers to retirees who wanted to finish up a 40 year old dream of learning to fly – work and life had gotten in the way. Some of our customers were airline pilots who just wanted to get “checked out” in a little plane, others were tourists visiting Orlando who wanted to do some flying in Florida. Flying captures the imagination of all types of people and I met a lot of good people there.

One customer I will never forget was a young man from France, Patrick. He would come in every day for a week or more and then not come in for a few weeks on end. Patrick was polite and worked hard but he struggled a bit in the airplane and at times we had difficulty communicating. At first I thought it was because of his English proficiency but then I realized some part was due to mental block. Patrick was very shy if you will.

I realized quickly Patrick wasn’t making progress as fast as most. We were a “Part 61” flight school which means the curriculum is rather informal, each student makes progress at their own pace. We didn’t have programmed stage checks but instructors regularly asked their peers to fly with their respective students, just to get a second opinion, give the student an opportunity to be evaluated by a fresh set of eyes. One day when I thought Patrick was close to being ready to solo I asked Mark, another instructor, to fly with him. After the flight Mark shook his head and told me he didn’t think Patrick was close.

Something was different about Patrick but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I was young(ish) and struggling to make a living as most all flight instructors do. I didn’t feel like it was my place to decide who should be taking flight instruction or who should not – as long as the person is safety oriented and shows good judgment. I don’t remember who told me but someone pulled me aside in the lobby of the FBO and asked if I knew Patrick was spending the nights sleeping in his car out in the airport parking lot. Apparently people had noticed Patrick sleeping in his car and asked if he was OK. Patrick seemed to be more comfortable talking to the line men and he had confided in one of them, told them he lived out of his car, he’d spend a week at the airport and then go to work as a road construction laborer for a few weeks. Every time he’d go away to work he’d save his money and then come back to the airport to fly.

As we struggled to make progress I knew Patrick was becoming frustrated. At the urging of the line man in whom Patrick confided, I manned up and told Patrick one day that flying airplanes isn’t easy, some people take more time than others and that I would understand if he chose not to continue, if he chose to save his money for other purposes. I told Patrick there’s no shame in doing the best you can no matter what the outcome of the training, but we have to be safe. He told me he wanted to continue just a bit longer.

I think Patrick felt better after we talked. No longer focused on a timeframe or given outcome, he wasn’t frustrated with himself anymore. And then one day it seemed like things “just clicked”. Like most students, all of a sudden there was a moment where Patrick became consistent and capable of flying the airplane around the pattern without my help.

After 30+ hours (the typical average at our school was about 12-15) Patrick appeared ready to solo. I flew with him several more times because I had to be sure. Patrick never regressed and about 38 hours into his flight training, I got out of the airplane and told Patrick to fly around the pattern. I waited by the taxiway and after Patrick landed I told him to do 2 more trips around the pattern.

I felt comfortable watching Patrick solo. Despite my earlier frustration I knew he’d mastered flying the airplane around the pattern solo. After his third landing I told Patrick to park the airplane, he was beaming. His friend the line man was as happy as I’d seen him in nearly 2 years of flight instructing there. Mark, the other CFI, congratulated us and told me, “Ward, I just have to shake your hand on this one.” He later told me he didn’t Patrick would solo.

I never saw Patrick again after that day. He left to go work again, he seemed satisfied and comfortable with the decisions he’d made. I barely grasped the significance at the time, I was young and getting by from day to day.

I taught a homeless man to fly. He taught me not to judge, everyone has dreams they want to pursue.


Took my chances on a big jet plane – a TU154 in Minsk.

Piper Aztec ferry flight

November 9, 2014

When I started flying I didn’t give much thought to flying airplanes that were older than me. Now that I’m not so young anymore that’s changed. Not in terms of airworthiness – airworthiness doesn’t depend on age but on the quality maintenance – but when I’m flying a 50 year old airplane I can’t help but wonder all that she’s seen in those 50 years.

Flying a 1964 Piper Aztec across the ocean I ponder about stuff like that. I have 2 young daughters, I wonder about the first kids who took a ride in this airplane when she still had a new-airplane smell, they’re are now making retirement plans somewhere. So much history you almost wish the airplane could talk.

Many older piston-twins are returning to the US, they’re becoming too expensive to operate in Europe. Pilots prefer newer plastic planes that go faster and use less fuel. It makes sense but it’s hard to find a new airplane that flies as nice as a Piper Aztec. The Aztec always had the reputation for being one of the easiest twin engine airplanes to fly, a reputation well deserved. If you can land a C182 on a sunny day, you can fly an Aztec.

Here are a few pictures of the trip. The picture with the First Air B737s is (c) @tattuinee.


September 8, 2014

A young man approached me at an airport in England recently, we talked a bit while we were kicking the tires – tyres as they say in England – of the airplane I was picking up. He said he’d hate to see the old airplane leave but he understood, the market in Europe prefers newer single-engine airplanes over piston twins, plastic fuselages over welded steel tubes. We talked about the planned ferry flight that would take the 50-year old Piper Aztec “home” to the US and the young man pulled up a picture on his phone, saying since I knew a bit about Atlantic ferry flights that he wanted my opinion.

The man is a pilot and mechanic, in truth he didn’t need my opinion, he knew very well. The picture he showed me was this. He said he’d personally taken the picture in the cockpit of a Piper Matrix that had just landed from an Atlantic ferry flight, not something he had obtained secondhand. The Piper Matrix had departed from Canada and crossed the Atlantic directly, without ferry tanking or HF radio. When the airplane landed, the fuel gauges looked like this:

Piper Matrix fuel gauge

Fuel display of a Piper Matrix that very nearly became another fuel exhaustion ferry flight accident

I looked up the flight path and the aircraft’s registration online a few days later. The aircraft registration shows up in the “testimonials” section on the website of a well known con artist / wannabe ferry pilot, a pilot who has previously crashed an aircraft in Greenland due to fuel starvation.

Most pilots who fly long-range flights have run into situations where they landed with less fuel than they were happy with. Weather, diversions, ATC delays, mechanical issues, or other situations beyond your control are the reason you carry plenty of fuel reserve. Sadly, good pilots have lost their lives due to exceedingly adverse and unexpected conditions. That was not the case for this Piper Matrix, the pilot knowingly or ignorantly planned a flight well beyond the safe range of the airplane just to save a few bucks. Had he run into any issues at all, he would have become another fuel exhaustion ferry flight accident. Had he been ramp checked, there would have been violations and fines. Had there been an accident the insurance company would have put up a fight not to pay out.

When you hire a ferry pilot, check their references. Don’t rely on “testimonials” on some website, ask previous customers and people who are familiar with ferry flying. I will be happy to provide references from previous customers and other pilots. If you don’t hire me, please hire another reputable ferry pilot.

Caption Competition!

August 20, 2014

What fun would we be if we can’t poke fun at ourselves? This picture was taken as I wrestled into my immersion during a recent Atlantic ferry flight. I don’t know what I was thinking or saying, it couldn’t be nearly as bad as the look on my face in this picture suggests.

What was I thinking or saying? Feel free to write in your best guess in the comments :)

UPDATE: Otto illustrates it perfectly on Twitter.

ferry pilot immersion suit

Could I still fly without GPS?

May 13, 2014

Somewhere in the blink of an eye, 20+ years have gone by since I learned to fly. Back when I was young, a semester seemed like a long time the first day you walked into school after vacation. A year seemed like forever and 20 years was an un-imaginable eternity. Not anymore. Looking back, 20+ years have gone by very fast.

Point being, I learned to fly many moons ago, well before GPS became mainstay. In hindsight I don’t think my flight training was all that great but I did grasp the fundamentals of navigation quite well – without GPS or moving maps that are commonplace now. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to fly to many parts of the world, plotted many courses and looked at many maps to get to where I was going. Big cities, small towns, I always tried to find something interesting in the places I was going. You probably didn’t know Tifton GA once was the reading capital of the world did you? I knew because I flew in there one day :)

GPS navigation improved situational awareness tremendously and made long-range navigation a lot easier but I still fly as if the GPS could go away at any time. GPS is very reliable but in a small airplane you have to be conservative. More likely you could lose the electrical system altogether. So whenever I fly over water I make sure I can get to my destination the old-fashioned way: compass and time. Plot your course, scribble down a nav log and if all else fails, just flying the compass heading over the specified times should put you close enough to your destination to pick up some local navigation aid or land VFR.

The other day I flew without GPS for the first time since I don’t quite remember when. I was delivering a nice Beech Baron to the Yucatan and the owner had told me there’d be a brand new portable GPS in the plane. I have a bit of an aversion to gadgets and wires dangling in the cockpit so I rarely carry a portable GPS myself. When I got to the airport I set out to open the box with the owner’s new GPS but I gave up quickly. I didn’t want to spend much time or rob the new owner of the joy of setting up his new gadgets so I decided to just fly VFR the old-fashioned way.

I took off in NC and had severe clear skies all the way to South Florida where I was stopping for fuel and customs. Over Florida at 14,500 feet I could see 80 miles, a gorgeous clear day. The next morning was more of the same, clear skies and light winds. I took off from Opa Locka and headed for Key West, where I finally found the first functioning NDB station since North Carolina (I’d been using VORs to double check my position). Fish Hook NDB and the Key West VOR gave me good navigation for better than 150nm out of Key West, then I was on my own until I got in range of the VORs in Yucatan, except for an occasional check of my position to Havana VOR. When I got in range of Cancun VOR I found my position to be about 2 miles off course. 2 miles seems like an awful lot nowadays in the era of GPS but it’s really not. I was flying VFR on a clear day and had good navigation when in range of my destination. I wasn’t going to miss the Yucatan by any stretch. Now in the really old days when people were flying without GPS to places like Hawaii or Wake Island, that would be another challenge.

Once in range of the Merida VOR, I landed safely in Mexico on Cinco de Mayo! Only to find out that Cinco de Mayo is mostly a big commercial thing in the US and “real” Mexicans don’t make a big deal out of it. Bummer :)

route to Yucatan

Map showing airways from Key West to the Yucatan

flying over FL Keys

Flying over the Florida Keys

When I was approaching Opa Locka in South Florida, the controllers gave me several vectors around traffic and airspace. About 8 miles out of Opa Locka, came the dreaded “resume own navigation”. There’s no VOR at Opa Locka and the localizer had been NOTAM’d inop. I pointed the airplane to where I thought the airport should be but after 3 hours at 14,500 feet I wasn’t sure about my distance perception at low altitude. I looked at the airport in front of me and another one just to the North.

I decided “almost sure” didn’t cut it, so I asked the tower controller (most have radar in South FL).

“I’m doing this the old fashioned way without GPS, can you confirm Opa Locka is the airport directly in front of me?”

The controller confirmed my position. Said he understood, most of the airports in S. FL have the same runway configuration and landing at the wrong airport is easier than you might think.

How to export an airplane

May 10, 2014

I almost wrote “how NOT to export an airplane”. That sounds too condescending but it’s hard to overstate the importance of doing everything correctly when exporting an airplane. I’ve seen too many buyers run into problems because they relied on bad advice from a seller or inexperienced pilot. It’s not fun when I have to go retrieve an airplane that was left stranded in the middle of nowhere because another pilot flew without valid registration, failed a ramp check somewhere or things of that nature. Those types of problems can cost the new owner a lot of money.

So if you’ll bear with me and forgive the “do this don’t do that” tone, here are some of the most common questions or issues regarding aircraft export. If I’ve overlooked anything or you have any corrections / additions please let me know:

Where to close the sale?

You can “close” the sale of the airplane either in the country of origin or in the destination country. Both are perfectly acceptable as long as you are aware of the implications for the ferry flight. If you close the sale in the country of origin, the buyer legally owns the airplane from that point on and will be responsible for the airplane, registration, airworthiness, etc. If you close the sale in the destination country, the seller is responsible for all of those things until the airplane is delivered. In General Aviation, the seller usually wants to close the sale in the country of origin, they simply don’t want the responsibility of the ferry flight or the (perceived) risk of flying their airplane to a foreign country.

The important consideration here is when you “close” the sale, for a US registered airplane, the aircraft’s existing registration (in name of the seller) becomes invalid and the airplane must then be re-registered by the buyer.

Additionally, you should always use a reputable escrow service to exchange funds for clear title to the airplane. Any other arrangement such as paying the seller directly or releasing funds (other than any agreed upon advance) without filing the FAA title at the same time leave the buyer open to significant risk.

Aircraft registration for the ferry flight:

If you “close” the sale in the destination country the aircraft registration remains valid (assuming the seller has the airplane registered properly) in name of the seller for the duration of the ferry flight. For longer trips in General Aviation aircraft it is not common for the seller to agree to this.

If you “close” the sale in the country of origin, the airplane must be re-registered in name of the buyer prior to commencing the ferry flight. This is probably the area where most problems occur. Nowadays the FAA is more strict about requiring that sellers return their registration certificate to the FAA but I have seen buyers run into problems because they simply flew the airplane with the previous owner’s registration certificate in the airplane, only to realize that it was no longer valid when they got ramp checked or passed through Customs.

Aircraft registration in the country of origin or destination country?

If the buyer closes the sale in the country of origin, he or she must then decide to register the airplane in the country of origin or in the destination country. Most countries’ civil aviation authorities will readily issue a registration for an airplane that is being imported but you if you go that route, you will also need a provisional airworthiness certificate from the importing country – airworthiness and registration must be from the same country. This is typically more complicated for a used airplane. Depending on the requirements of the importing country, it may be quite expensive to get a provisional airworthiness certificate as the civil aviation authorities may require that the airplane is inspected by someone licensed in that country. There are also TSA security procedures that must be complied with for operation of some foreign registered aircraft in the USA.

If you wish to register the airplane in the country of origin for the duration of the ferry flight, the buyer must follow the correct procedure for that country. For a US registered airplane, the only legal and correct procedure for a foreign person or entity to register an airplane is via a “trust” (there are some exceptions if the airplane is intended to be physically based and operated in the USA).

This is also an area where many problems occur. The trust is fairly easy and inexpensive to create and is a fully legal structure. Using a trust allows operation on US registration indefinitely. However, other “solutions” such as setting up a Delaware corporation to be the registered owner or asking a seller not to file the FAA paperwork until the airplane arrives at it’s destination are not legal and DO NOT protect the buyer. Alternatively you can use an intermediary to export the airplane but only if the intermediary is in fact the legal owner of the airplane.

Export Certificate of Airworthiness:

Most countries require an Export CofA for aircraft being imported. There are a multitude of bi-lateral agreements that govern this subject but the basic idea is that the Export CofA states 2 things: 1) the airplane is currently airworthy in the exporting country and 2) the airplane meets any additional requirements of the importing country.

If you plan to keep operating the airplane on US registration, an Export CofA is typically not required but it is still a good idea to check if your airplane meets the additional requirements of the importing country because you must meet the “operating requirements” of the countries you fly in. So if you fly in Europe where most countries still require DME for IFR operations, you must have a DME in the airplane if you plan to fly IFR, even if you fly on N-registration.

The “additional requirements” of the importing country can vary from trivial to very expensive. For example, most countries outside North America require an altimeter in millibars. More expensive issues could exist around validation of STCs. If your airplane has been modified in accordance with any STCs (supplemental type certificates) it is important to verify that those STCs have been validated in the importing country. Maintenance requirements may also be more stringent in the importing country: for example, some countries mandate engine overhauls in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations of time in service as well as calendar time. The US FAA does not mandate those overhaul periods (for privately operated aircraft).

US Customs export:

US Customs export is mostly a formality but it is a requirement by law. Exporting an airplane is a bit unique in that the airplane is both the mode of transportation and the commodity being exported (if flown, not if containerized, in that case it is just a commodity being exported). What’s important here is that “import” and “export” for Customs purposes are typically determined by physical base of operations, not by country of registration. The export formalities can be handled by a licensed customs broker.

Ferry flight:

Depending on the destination and route of flight, there are likely to be operational requirements for the ferry flight above and beyond those of the exporting country. For example, requirements for survival gear, emergency equipment, pilot’s licensing and fuel reserve are more stringent during the ferry flight than during operations in the continental USA. It’s important to be sure your ferry pilot observes all the requirements. For example, a pilot who flies directly from Goose Bay to Narsarsuaq in an airplane that doesn’t meet the Transport Canada equipment and fuel reserve requirements would be at risk of violations, fines, invalidate the aircraft’s insurance, etc.

If you have any questions regarding aircraft export or ferry flight feel free to contact me. This is not meant to be an exhaustive, step-by-step guide but only a summary of the most common issues based on my own experience as a ferry pilot.


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.


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