Flying With LightHawk

Streams coursing across the New Jersey wetlands.
Streams coursing across the New Jersey wetlands. (Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk/)

I feel the pull of the Cessna 182’s changing lift vector as I turn to orbit just south and east of KPHL at 500 feet. We’re observing the changes along the New Jersey banks of the Delaware River—a very different “Jersey Shore”—and marking them with a string of photos across the water from the Philadelphia International Airport. At the same time, Philly Tower asks us to stay east of the final approach to Runway 35 for traffic, a landing Embraer 145, and we’re all watching for power lines, cell towers and birds. We brief the emergency bird-avoidance maneuver—if the bird appears motionless and grows larger, pitch up hard because birds tend to dive—and we almost use it.

LightHawk volunteer pilot Steve Kent negotiated our low-level path along the river as part of our environmental-survey mission for the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, which brings together more than 140 groups to advocate for the future of the watershed. The CDRW is just one of the many partner organizations that collaborate with LightHawk, a charitable aviation organization focused on conservation. Our low-level journey won’t have us above 1,200 feet msl for the entire 3.3 hours we put on the Hobbs. And it’s made safer in many degrees by the amphibious floats on the 182 we’re flying; everywhere we fly near the river, there’s a potential runway weaving past the settlements, marshes and myriad industrial operations.

The Mission

LightHawk started as one man’s vision: Michael Stewart was flying over the desert southwest and saw the open pit mines and encroaching developments below, and he found an application for flying to help illuminate the conservation issues at hand. Stewart launched the program in 1979 specifically with a flight to show the effects of building a coal-based power plant on the doorstep of the Grand Canyon. The mission quickly evolved into a loosely organized project based in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Aspen, Colorado; and then in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It allows a person to be informed so that they can make better decisions,” says Ryan Boggs, current chief program officer and interim CEO for the organization, regarding LightHawk’s role in conservation efforts. “It provides a freedom of choice based on having good information.”

Leveraging donated aircraft from one of the founding contributors, Will Parish, after moving to California, the group began flying conservation missions in the US Mountain West through the 1980s before it ventured farther afield to Central America. The group worked directly with government officials in Costa Rica, Guatemala and other nations in order to go where the need was greatest—battling deforestation and other large-scale issues.

Streams coursing across the New Jersey wetlands.
Streams coursing across the New Jersey wetlands. (Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk/)

Skip Slyfield became involved with the organization in 1990, and he contrasts the early days against the current, more-structured approach that evolved. The first missions, particularly in Guatemala and Honduras, had a distinct air of flying closer to the bone—and he witnessed the change to an organized approach. “I was one of the check pilots who flew with prospective volunteer pilots in their airplanes on their initial check rides,” Slyfield says. “We had an [operations manual], a safety program, and the director of ops was a furloughed airline guy and USAF pilot who also managed the fleet of staff aircraft.”

“Volunteer pilots who would fly the established programs in Central America had a good ground-support crew that arranged the missions and communicated numbers, locations and mission objectives to us daily,” Slyfield continues. “There was a sense that, as a pilot, you were on your own in a foreign place, and LightHawk leadership strove to ensure that the volunteer pilots they sent down had the right mix of experience and personality to function. You operated as your own dispatcher, scheduler, safety officer, flight planner, flight attendant and mosquito-abatement officer.”

Still, there remained a feeling of true backcountry flying. “We flew with the doors off,” Slyfield says, “looking for timber theft—mostly mahogany trees.” Thieves on the border between the two countries would cut down a single tree and drag it home through the forest—impossible to locate from the ground but easier from the air. “The mahogany chips were bright red,” Slyfield remembers. “They looked like trails of blood.”

For operational safety, the pilots and their government agents made standard procedures of sweeping runways for animals and people before landing at backcountry strips. The outreach did more than help governments deal with illegal logging and the like, as Slyfield recalls. “The indigenous folks in Belize, Honduras and Mexico—for many of them, it was the first time they got to see where they live,” and put it in the context of the world at large.

That intersection remains at the heart of what LightHawk does, four decades later. On the surface, the missions might appear to focus on photography, capturing the ever-changing landscape and the human imprint upon it from the air. But the larger goal lies in changing the hearts and minds of those exposed to this view of the Earth for the first time.

Passing the I-76 bridge south of downtown Philadelphia.
Passing the I-76 bridge south of downtown Philadelphia. (Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk/)

Stephanie Wells, a former Air Force instructor pilot and FAA operations inspector in Colorado, has been flying with LightHawk for several years. Wells retired from the FAA in 2010 and then worked for Mountain Aviation in Broomfield, Colorado, as a charter pilot—but she wanted more. “After leaving the FAA, I thought, ‘What can I do as a volunteer pilot?’ One of my passions is the environment, climate change. I Googled it, and I found LightHawk.”

Wells owns a Van’s RV-7, and because LightHawk pilots can’t use experimental aircraft in their missions, she had to wait until a more suitable mount presented itself. In the western region of the US, LightHawk was doing some of its flying in a Cessna 185 that the organization could access. But it was in Boise, Idaho—too far away to make sense for Wells to use—and then it was sold. “A few years later, I got a call from Greg Bettinger [now retired from the organization], and he said ‘We have missions in Mesoamerica in our [Cessna] 206.’ That caught my interest right away.” Wells attended the annual volunteer fly-in for LightHawk in 2012 in Fort Collins, Colorado, and began flying in 2013. “I put a lot of time on that 206. I have ferried it down [to Central America] and back. I spent a lot of time in Guatemala. I had taken Spanish back in college—one year of college Spanish—and after one trip, I found I was pretty lost without it. So, then I made an effort to become fluent in Spanish, including doing some Spanish immersion classes in Guatemala.”

She found enough fulfillment flying for LightHawk that Wells sought a partnership in a Cessna 182, which is considered an optimal airplane for the kinds of flights routinely made. She’s tallied around 300 flights for LightHawk total as of 2019. Wells also took her participation to the next level, serving on LightHawk’s board of directors for three years at a time when they were transitioning to a new CEO, Terri Watson. “Watson thought they needed more written details for pilots, and I agreed. [Because] my background was in training and standardization, I assisted. They now have a manual, a handbook on how to do LightHawk missions and [a] whole bunch of safety information and LightHawk policies.” She continues to serve on the advisory board.

Streams coursing across the New Jersey wetlands.
Streams coursing across the New Jersey wetlands. (Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk/)

With challenging flight profiles, the education of a new volunteer pilot—even one with a lot of experience in the mountains or low-level flight—remains paramount. “The handbook is on the LightHawk website,” Wells says. “It’s available at any time, to anyone. It has advice on how to take photos, how to fly in the mountains, how to fly surveillance-resource missions, flying over coastlines—it’s a resource all pilots use.”

In places like Colorado, it really pays to have mountain flying experience—in fact, it’s pretty essential. “Some missions go out east of the Rockies…but I’ve done a lot of ‘headwaters of the Colorado River’ flights, and you have to get up over Corona Pass to get anywhere. There are [peaks above 14,000 feet] everywhere. Even in a 182—it’s not turbocharged—it takes some planning, and you have to really know what you’re doing.” Other key topics include knowledge of microclimate weather, aircraft performance and oxygen requirements.

Though it’s not required by LightHawk, the volunteer pilots interviewed say it is highly recommended to have an instrument rating to fly the missions in Mesoamerica with an extra margin of safety.

Flying the Map

To become a LightHawk pilot, the process begins by going to the website and reviewing the minimum qualifications to join. Then you fill out an initial application, which triggers a call from a volunteer mentor pilot chosen by the organization for their experience flying missions and safety ethic. “It’s a qualifying call, essentially,” Boggs says. Then, you’re invited to fill out the full application on the site, along with several references. The mentor will call those references to check specifically on your own safety ethic. “It’s one part of our safety management system,” Boggs says. The mentor will verify that you’re the kind of conservative pilot they wish to have in the program. After a successful orientation call with the prospective pilot, mentor and program staff, you’ll join the pilot ranks with a full understanding of what that means—to both the organization and you.

Once you’re on the pilot roster, the regional coordinator will contact you regarding an upcoming mission and determine if you’re able to accept the assignment. If so, you receive a trip kit from the regional office that helps you create a manifest and mission plan. The coordinator takes care of a host of administrative duties, including ensuring that all those participating in the flight have signed a waiver and understand the basic safety parameters expected for the flight. Both Kent and Wells note the high degree of organization demonstrated by LightHawk, both overall and as compared with other volunteer aviation groups.

On the way down the Delaware River to Cape May, New Jersey, we witnessed the outflow from a tributary draining the wetlands, alongside development.
On the way down the Delaware River to Cape May, New Jersey, we witnessed the outflow from a tributary draining the wetlands, alongside development. (Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk/)

The pilot remains pilot in command and can call off the flight at any point. The safety culture runs deeply through the organization, and Boggs is happy to relate that in 40 years of operations, they’ve only registered three accidents—a pretty good run considering the low-level and confined-area/mountainous flying that comprises most missions. “One of the great things about a LightHawk flight: It’s incredibly important, but it’s never urgent,” Boggs says, so the pressure to complete a flight on a particular day just doesn’t exist from the organization’s point of view.

On our mission to survey the Delaware River, eastern-region program coordinator Jonathan Milne put us in touch with Kent and gave us an overall brief on the flight. Then, Kent sent out a proposed flight route, which took us from Wings Field Airport northwest of Philadelphia, down to Cape May, New Jersey, then back up the Atlantic coast. On the day of the flight, having clear skies and warm temperatures, we modified the flight-plan route to stop for lunch at Cape May Airport and circle the wetlands and landfills at Burlington Island near Fieldsboro and Trenton, New Jersey, on our return.

I had to ask: Are drones going to put LightHawk out of business? The short answer is no, according to Boggs. “We’re about the human experience of being in the air and seeing something with your own eyes. Most people never have the experience of walking out on the tarmac to an aircraft, sitting next to the pilot—all those things are part of a LightHawk flight.” That view of the Earth from the air is rightfully precious.

LightHawk and Flying Expedition: Lower Delaware River Watershed
LightHawk and Flying Expedition: Lower Delaware River Watershed (Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk/)

Be a Lighthawk Pilot

  • Private pilot certificate with a current third-class medical (could be BasicMed depending on aircraft and passengers)
  • Instrument rating desired but not required
  • Mountain flying experience highly desirable
  • At least 1,000 hours PIC
  • Access to aircraft (can be owned or rented) through which you can donate to the mission by paying for the aircraft costs

If you don’t have the total time yet, but you’d still like to contribute, LightHawk accepts cash donations at lighthawk.org.


This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Leading Edge: Two Wheels, Two Wings

The author has met the nicest people in a Bonanza.
The author has met the nicest people in a Bonanza. (Courtesy Honda Motor Company/)

I wasn’t looking for nice. I was a 14-year-old, eagerly flipping through a vintage Playboy magazine I found in a thrift store in upstate New York while my parents looked at an old rug in the next room. But still, the illustration—a carefree blonde, a man in uniform, both astride a Honda motorcycle carrying them forward out of frame—caught my eye. The girl, huge smile on, rode pillion with her arms wrapped around his waist. The ad promised a whole world of opportunity. I wanted in. Five years later, I bought my first motorcycle. I quickly found a community, fervent in their unique love for the sport. I thought I’d found my religion. But much later on in life, I found another, even more imperative subculture: aviation. Compared to motorcycling, aviation promises and delivers equally, minus the arms wrapped around you in flight. That would just be dangerous.

In my last 28 years of riding, nearly every motorcyclist I have passed has waved to me. I’m talking about a 95 percent rate of salutation here. No judgment either. Ducati riders wave at Harley bikers. Goldwings wave at Ninjas. It makes no difference so long as you are on two wheels. Pluralism in action. Imagine if every motorist you ever passed waved to you: You’d get carpal tunnel syndrome just trying to be polite. Why, then, do bikers all greet one another? It’s partly the diminutive size of the motorcycling population. By definition, you need small numbers for a subculture to exist. But beyond the census, an essential criterion is a unique love for the activity. The more fervent, the better. When the fervor approaches religion, you start waving.

Aviation is a religion. We as pilots possess the ardor. We have the dedication. We keep the faith (in our A&Ps at least). One could argue that any serious subculture has a religious quality to it. But what elevates aviation (and motorcycling to a degree) above your neighborhood ceramics club is the inherent risk. It may not feel like it to a competent pilot, but unlike pulling a car or bike over to the side of the road for a timeout, we pilots don’t have that luxury. An airplane in flight is coming down at some point, controlled or otherwise. No timeouts. That shared risk makes for a connected community. This is the house of worship I belong to.

When we meet another person who drives a car, we are not moved to conversation. “Wait, you also drive an automobile?” Yet any pilot can and will talk to another pilot at length. Politics and actual religion be damned. A crop-duster stick and an A380 captain will have plenty to discuss—because both abide by the same laws of aerodynamics. Our church cares only for lift, not useful load.

Beyond conversing, pilots maintain the ubiquitous quality of simply wanting to help. I experienced this firsthand when I flew my V-tail Bonanza across the country this past September. The first leg was from New York to Atlanta to have my esteemed mechanic, Bob Ripley, go over the plane. I completed a top-down restoration over the six months prior. When that many things have been touched, it’s best to have a good, long look by an expert third party, and in fact, there were a few omissions/discrepancies. We (well, Bob) corrected them, and I made my way west.

After landing in Monroe County, Mississippi, I walked into the FBO to find Cecil Boswell, a 77-year-old veterinarian who still regularly flies his Piper J-3 Cub. It was more than 100 degrees outside; neither of us were in any hurry to head back out. A few minutes later, his 89-year-old friend, Aero, showed up. Close friends since childhood, these two repeat this regimen five days a week. They meet at the FBO then saunter over a few hundred feet to their man cave: a corner T-hangar with its additional appendage converted into a little clubhouse. Aviation photos everywhere. TV on but no one watching. They don’t talk all that much as Aero can’t hear very well. But then, most of what’s needed to be said has already been said: the telltale sign of a lifelong friendship. I watched them drink vodka out of Styrofoam cups while they laughed a bunch. I abstained from the vodka but engaged wholeheartedly in the laughs. They hammered me with questions about my journey and regaled me with stories of their own flying adventures. When it got quiet, I explained I still had many miles to go.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

As I stood up to leave, Cecil offered to show me Aero’s hangar. The sun was setting as he walked me over to a much larger hangar. Inside the dark, cool space was Aero’s own J-3 Cub: a yellow 1946 model in perfect condition. Aero can’t fly anymore, Cecil explained. He tried a few years back (with Cecil flying copilot) and realized he just didn’t have the faculty for it any longer. His time was up. I asked why Aero was holding onto the plane. Cecil shrugged. “He just likes to see it when he opens the door.” With no kids to inherit the Cub—Aero’s son died in Afghanistan flying for Blackwater, and his daughter recently died of pneumonia—who knows what will become of it. But I hadn’t detected any anticipation of that loss in Aero’s disposition. The man laughed and talked excitedly about all things aviation. You take hold of the joy wherever it comes, he seemed to say. And when able, you share it.

In the early evening, with the heat finally retreating, I took off for Oklahoma. Up at 10,000 feet, I asked for and received 30-degree deviations in both directions at pilot’s discretion. No, there weren’t any buildups. Just a benign collection of cumulus clouds floating up there like building-size cotton balls. They weren’t bumpy inside, and I was on an IFR flight plan. I could have easily just flown through them, but that wasn’t what this was about. I switched off the autopilot and made coordinated, swooping turns between the clouds, at times shooting small, wing-wide gaps. I felt Luke Skywalker levels of exhilaration. This is why kids want to be pilots when they grow up, I thought. The speed you normally have no sense of in cruise is revealed when passing a well-defined cloud 20 feet off your left wing at 184 ktas. See above for instructions on joy.

A night in Ada, Oklahoma, was followed by a short visit to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Halfway through my last preflight of the cross-country journey, I found the left aileron stuck in a full up attitude. I had moved the right aileron up and down with no resistance. But when moving the left, it froze solid. I went back inside the FBO. My dog, Seven, followed, euphoric that I had changed my mind about flying. I was not as excited. A stuck aileron is not a minor squawk. I made some calls, but this was a Saturday, so my hopes were not high for a result.

I was wrong. Thirty minutes later, I was watching Gerard Ontiveros from Santa Fe Aero Services climb up underneath my panel where he quickly found a ventilation hose that had come loose and become bound up in the aileron cable. “So that’s why there’s been no defrost heating,” I thought. Mystery solved. But also, lesson learned: Always preflight. The airplane was in a climate-controlled hangar overnight. Aside from a quick visual inspection for any hangar rash, one might think they could truncate the full preflight. But I did not. I went through every step, and thank God. If that aileron had frozen in flight (think 400 feet agl as I turned on course), it would not have been pretty. Not only did he save me, but Gerard refused payment. Flat out. I persisted—multiple times. He said he was just glad he caught it. I wished I had the Honda ad to show him.

Of all the departures I’d made crossing the country, this was the one I was most nervous about. By the time I was ready to depart, the density altitude was over 8,000 feet, and there were reports of low-level turbulence—conditions very similar to my crash in Telluride, Colorado, back in spring 2018. Nerves jangling, I called up Eric Eviston, my instructor, who is always happy to discuss things. It helped. Thankfully, the more I fly, the more opportunities I have to reciprocate for other pilots. When my friend Demian, a new pilot, calls to talk about New York (Class B airspace), it is no chore for me to spend 30 minutes on the phone, our charts open on both ends of the call, dissecting the sectionals with their esoteric markings. In this house of aviation worship, these are no less useful than scriptures—and, at times (certainly in flight), far more so.

Nerves calmed, I completed a near-perfect flight to Santa Monica, California, that afternoon where I began a 3-month-long work stint. I had been seeing slight traces of oil on the windscreen the whole trip, and my friend Howard pointed me to Kim Davidson Aviation to get it sorted; it turned out to be a leaky crank seal. When I went to see him, Kim walked out onto the tarmac and met me at the plane, his hand extended and a broad smile on his face. “Welcome to California,” he said, shaking my hand as if we’d been friends for years. He didn’t even know my name. All he knew was that we both love airplanes, and that was enough. You meet the nicest people.

Follow Ben Younger on Instagram: @thisisbenyounger

This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Gear Up: Getting it Done

A wind vector of 178 results in net 120-knot headwind.
A wind vector of 178 results in net 120-knot headwind. (Dick Karl/)

"Hey, Dick. Just so you know, the airport is closed.” It’s Max calling from the FBO in Lebanon, New Hampshire, about an hour before our proposed takeoff time. “There’s ice on the runway; they are scraping it now. If we can just get a little more sun, it won’t take long before they’ll open 18/36.”

“Well,” I ask, “what’s the temp?”

“Thirty-three right now.”

This isn’t the first time in 50-plus years of flying I’ve encountered a delay. Nowadays, though, I’ve got more resources than ever and delays are rare. If there is a hiccup, it usually isn’t for long.

It was not always thus. Early on—with nothing but a private certificate and a budget that could carry renting a Cessna 172 for an hour about once every three to four months—frustration, disappointment, delays and cancellations outdistanced flight serenity most of the time. Living in a med-school dorm room in New York City meant all proposed flights began with a lengthy discussion with the flight service station. It had to be VFR all along the proposed route. I was usually hoping to get to Ithaca, New York, a Shangri-La well-known for its horrible weather.

If the forecast was good, a rental airplane had to be available. If it was, I had to have the cash. If I did, it was a go, and I would walk to the subway, take it to the Port Authority bus station, ride the bus toward, but not to, Teterboro Airport. Disgorged at the corner of the airport perimeter, I’d walk the three-quarters of a mile to the FBO. There, I would declare myself “current.”

Only once or twice did the stars line up so that such a flight was possible. And then, you had to get back to KTEB. That forecast had to hold for at least 24 hours.

Today, with our Cessna Citation CJ1, I am almost never delayed more than an hour or two for such events as “ice on runway.” The airplane is immensely capable, certified for known ice, radar-equipped and capable of reaching Flight Level 410. I have my own personal minimums, though. It just isn’t worth it to take off zero-zero or stretch a flight beyond reasonable fuel reserves. A thunderstorm encounter in a Beechcraft Musketeer 45 years ago has left me permanently allergic to flying close to any such beast.

A CJ makes a planned trip almost a certainty. Skirting a thunderstorm (or, even better, flying over them) at 370 knots is a lot more plausible than in a Musketeer. Coupled approaches to minimums are actually quite easy, and if range is an issue, I just stop for gas. Whereas an ILS used to be necessary for really low weather, the advent of LPV approaches has made almost everywhere as accessible as Kennedy or Dallas-Fort Worth.

“It’s Max—we’re open.” So began a flight that demonstrates all these facts with clarity. FltPlan.com had predicted a net headwind component of 70 knots over the route to Charleston, South Carolina, a stop on the way to Tampa, Florida, made necessary by the unfavorable winter jet stream. Atlantic Aviation at KCHS participates in the Corporate Aircraft Association’s fuel program available to turbine airplanes flown under Part 91 (but not Part 135). So, cheap gas.

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

We loaded up. By “we,” I mean me, my wife, Cathy, and our rescue knuckleheaded mix of a dog. I was careful on startup to be alert for sliding on ice. I took an extra five minutes with cockpit preparation and the initialization of the navigation. Our clearance was: “GREKI just north of JFK, flight-plan route, maintain 6,000, expect Flight Level 360 in 10 minutes.” Slowly, tentatively, we taxied out to Runway 18.

Takeoff was routine. I knew I had to recycle our new ADS-B transponders after takeoff because of a programming glitch. After completing the after-takeoff check list—gear up, yaw damper on, flaps up, engine sync on, flight-level change selected, nav engaged, autopilot on—I set about getting the transponders reset before calling Boston Center. About then, we entered cloud. When I looked back up, the airplane was in a right turn. We were climbing at an appalling fraction of our usual 2,500 feet per minute, and all previous settings for climb and navigation had dropped out.

OK, it was time for good old Cessna 172 “needle, ball and airspeed” flying. I selected a heading that was close enough and a vertical speed of 2,000 feet per minute and hand-flew the airplane until we popped out on top and I could get the autopilot on and figure out what was going on.

Hanging in there, our navigation gradually got squared away. Our two GPS boxes weren’t talking to each other because they couldn’t agree on what time it was. (There was a two-second difference in Zulu time between the two.)

“Hanging in there” was a good descriptor for the entire flight. The winds at FL 360 were roaring at 178 knots; the headwind component was more than 120 knots at one point. But we just kept on chugging along. I found myself thinking that even with a 100-knot loss, our groundspeed was greater than we used to enjoy in our Piper Cheyenne on a windless day and more than twice as fast as that Musketeer.

Come to think of it, “hanging in there” is the great life lesson of aviation. Yes, it is glorious to flit about with a 100-knot tailwind (my personal best was a groundspeed of 577 knots in a Beechcraft Premier—nothing personal about it; it was the airplane, not me), but making headway against ferocious winds, just like a successful approach in lousy weather, carries with it a sense of perseverance. I feel great reverence for any machine or animal that keeps at it until the job is done.

All this is true in life as well. People who display great resilience become our heroes. Both Eisenhower and Churchill spent time in eclipse during their careers, but it did not bring them down. Our most celebrated athletes almost all have demonstrated resilience and perseverance. They get it done. So does our 20-year-old Citation. It’s the best, and I am lucky.


This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Safety Standdown

“Frightened human beings will only do what they’re trained to. They don’t rise to the occasion; they sink to the level of their training.” - United States Marines 
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman
“Frightened human beings will only do what they’re trained to. They don’t rise to the occasion; they sink to the level of their training.” - United States Marines Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (iStock/Jevgenij Kulikov/)

Despite an industry inhabited with thousands of gigantic egos, most aviation folk will probably admit, some secretly, that they wish they had a mentor, a guide to prevent them from falling into any of the thousands of professional pits waiting for the unsuspecting or poorly educated. Who wouldn’t like advice from someone who has been there before and knows the answers to important questions such as the best initial education, job-search tips or even how to hang on to the position they already have? Imagine too learning just how to safely move an airplane and its cargo of passengers from engine start to shutdown?

When it comes to aviation safety—whether the topic is fatigue, cockpit and cabin operations, or the late-night replacement of an APU in time for an 0600 departure—Bombardier’s three-day Safety Standdown has risen high on the must-attend list for aviation practitioners around the globe over the past 23 years.

The first Safety Standdown was the brainchild of a team of pilots led by Bob Agostino, former director of Bombardier’s flight operations in Wichita, Kansas, following a tough accident investigation. Also an experienced investigator, Agostino asked members of his department for suggestions, and one, a US Air Force veteran, mentioned how the military dealt with similar issues: “We’d stand down [from flying] until we figured out the cause of the problem.”

Agostino realized there was no reason to wait for another accident to the search for answers. Not long after, the first Safety Standdown was launched as an internal training tool for Bombardier’s seven-pilot Wichita flight department. In 1997, the Safety Standdown expanded to include Bombardier’s research-and-development teams and the company’s test pilots. A few years later, customers were invited. By the turn of the century, the doors were opened at no cost to other flight departments and individuals.

The rest is history, with more than 10,000 people having attended the SSD since the beginning, including professionals from the airlines, business aviation, the military, aircraft OEMs, a variety of government agencies and industry associations, such as the National Business Aviation Association, which co-sponsors the event.

While most SSDs have been held each fall in Wichita, the 2019 event attracted 543 people to Fort Worth, Texas. All available SSD slots were spoken for just eight days after the first announcement, leaving 143 people on the waiting list. Many of the presentations were, however, broadcast on the web and archived for operators around the US and in dozens of foreign countries.

Tony Kern has become the conscience of Safety Standdown.
Tony Kern has become the conscience of Safety Standdown. (Courtesy Bombardier/)

So what’s the Point?

You could think of the Safety Standdown as annual safety refresher training focused around a theme; this past year’s was “Learn, Apply, Share,” meant to reinforce the SSD concept that simply meeting any regulator’s minimum standards should never be good enough—for anyone. The lessons contained in SSD sessions can easily be applied to pilots and technicians in most any category because event organizers believe every aviation professional has the responsibility to learn, to seek as much information as possible from already-existing human factors and technical training. Each year, the SSD adds to that body of knowledge.

Some of the more tantalizing of the two dozen topics presented at the most recent SSD came with titles such as “When Your Cockpit Becomes Your Enemy” and “Emotional Well-Being in Aviation,” highlighting a few of the problems inherent in what some experts view as the narrowly focused aviation education being dished out today. The problems surrounding that education are expected to grow over the next decade as hundreds of thousands of new pilots and maintenance technicians begin careers around the world.

If the SSD were ever to name a dean emeritus, that title would surely fall on Dr. Tony Kern, an engaging, self-effacing, animated and humorous voice who’s constantly nudging participants to improve their personal performance beyond minimum standards. Kern is chief executive officer and a founding partner of Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Convergent Performance, a company focused on optimizing people’s personal and professional performance. His well-known fictional-character-based speaking style—where he once entered the room looking like Sherlock Holmes reincarnated, preeminent thinking process included—manages to stay just far enough away from that of motivational speaker Tony Robbins to hold the interest of professionals in aviation.

Teaching others how to remain in command of their automation is Chris Lutat’s specialty.
Teaching others how to remain in command of their automation is Chris Lutat’s specialty. (Courtesy Bombardier/)

Before creating Convergent Performance, Kern—a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force—served as a command pilot and flight examiner as well as chairman of the Air Force’s Human Factors Steering Group. He was spurred into the human-performance field after two of his Air Force students lost their lives in 1992 when their B-1 bomber slammed into a ridgeline on a moonless night. Kern studied and wrote tirelessly after that as a way to come to grips with where he might have had failed those two pilots.

Kern easily slipped into the role of the Safety Standdown’s conscience as he spoke to the topics industry insiders should already know but often don’t want to hear. He’s the mentor everyone wishes they had because he knows how to help them up their game, identifying the process as a battle between who each individual is today and who they want to become. This year, he opened the SSD with a talk entitled “Levitation Is Not a Magic Trick: High Performance at the Merge.”

The merge is “where our goals, our objectives and our standards are challenged,” Kern said, “when people are not willing to live up to standards and [must deal with] complacency and cultural norms.” He asked the audience to think about people they work with who don’t live up to their potential. “They may be smart, with great stick-and-rudder skills, but they just can’t execute them in real time.” The question is, why? “It’s hard to fight an enemy with outposts in your head.” For instance, he said, “Now you’re a captain, and you plan to enjoy it, so satisfaction and complacency actually become the enemies of improvement.”

The Safety Standdown brings together industry leaders from the FAA, NBAA and Aircraft OEMs.
The Safety Standdown brings together industry leaders from the FAA, NBAA and Aircraft OEMs. (Courtesy Bombardier/)

We all say enhancing personal standards enhances safety—is that just talk? “Elevating our standards really means nothing if we don’t elevate our performance to reach those standards.” Adding a small dose of reality, Kern said: “This might be the most important Safety Standdown you’ve ever had because, here, we lay a lot of foundational bricks. If we’re really going to elevate our standards, the only thing left is to figure out how to do that. Safety Standdowners are a tribe of doers. So choose whatever standard you want and drive it into the fabric of your being. You’re only as committed as you are convinced. As you become convinced, you’ll learn it’s hard to change a habit or behavior. But habits are better than rules, though, because they keep you—you don’t need to keep them.” He expressed his belief that people leave SSD only one of two ways. “You’ll either network a little bit, make some friends, leave here feeling good, and maybe leave with a list of standards you want to improve but get caught up in the day-to-day business and not do a thing.” Or maybe, he said, you’ll take action. After saying this, he grew silent to let the point sink in.

“It’s not hard to fall below minimum performance standards. But keep in mind that your aircraft, Mother Nature or other airplanes—the entire world around you—[are] not under contract to present you with a challenge at the minimum regulatory standard. How many of you ever had to perform nearly perfectly just live? Often enough that we know it happens. Things that ‘never happened’ before, happen all the time,” he said. Headed toward his final points, Kern said: “Deliberate practice is about taking one small part of your life and refining it until you can’t possibly get any better. People who reach world-class status didn’t practice more, they simply practiced differently, sticking with it for at least 30 days to show the results. But if you try it, you’ll be asking yourself why you didn’t do it before.”

Confirming why his emphasis on performance above standards is so important, he asked the audience to support a survey question: “What percentage of you would admit to knowingly violating a standard, even a tiny one, in the past 60 days?” Plenty of hands went up, and Kern surprised everyone with an 86 percent figure. When asked what kind of standards he was talking about, Kern said they include “proximity to thunderstorms, sterile cockpits or even fuel reserves. If we all just agreed to live to minimum standards, the industry would turn around. To elevate your standards, you need to be authentic and genuinely care. You need to give back to others. Begin by following all the rules all the time, no exceptions. Care about raising the bar for others and you will raise it for yourself.”

More than 500 people attended the 2019 Safety Standdown.
More than 500 people attended the 2019 Safety Standdown. (Courtesy Bombardier/)

In Command of Our Automation

As he began his session, “Rising Above Technology: Performance Standards for 21st Century Airmanship,” Chris Lutat said, “I’m just a pilot.” A check airman and instructor for a major cargo carrier, Lutat co-authored the popular aviation book Automation Airmanship: Nine Principles for Operating Glass Cockpit Aircraft.

In the past decade, cockpit technology has, in fact, become one of the most sought-after topics for Safety Standdown audiences—probably because, deep down inside, many crewmembers realize the depth of their knowledge isn’t as deep as it should or could be. “So why elevate our standards when it comes to airmanship and specifically automation?” Lutat asked. “If we wait for the regulators to change our standards, it’s going to be a long wait. Look how long it took to vet and implement a high-angle-of-attack training program.” If distraction, patience and commitment help create our vision to getting home safely each day, Lutat said distraction is the real enemy. However, he suggested some other familiar barriers to self-improvement: “complacency, our egos, time, stress. How often do we just run out of time to update our standards?”

On to some automations issues: What do the highest-performing crews do—the people actually raising the bar? Reflecting on Kern’s earlier session, it often comes down to awareness. “There are times when we skip over one little preflight item or violate a seemingly tiny standard procedure,” he said. “Every time we forgive ourselves for not being the best, we begin eroding our chances, and…the next time, we’ll do the same thing.”

Safety Standdown breakout sessions often deliver ­hands-on experiences.
Safety Standdown breakout sessions often deliver ­hands-on experiences. (Courtesy Bombardier/)

He highlighted the senior UPS crew in the pre-dawn crash of an Airbus A300 at Birmingham, Alabama. The flying pilot failed to tell his copilot that, while she was off the radio, he’d switched the airplane to a vertical-descent mode in abject violation of company procedures. There was also much to learn from the Air France 447 accident. That crash focused on erroneous airspeed indications and the destabilization of the aircraft as it transitioned from a climbing flight path and pitch attitude. The crew likely never understood they were facing a simple loss of airspeed resource information that created erroneous airspeed numbers and warning messages.

When it comes to automation and how much a pilot really ought to know, Lutat believes understanding his well-known five levels of aviation automation proficiency could be a good place to begin. Level 1: The pilot demands constant correction and is clumsy and slow on small items. Level 2: Pilot actions are mostly correct and appropriate with only minor deviations, and most tasks are accomplished by rote. Level 3: A pilot’s performance is safe and efficient. They understand automation logic and require little correction, meeting minimum standards. Level 4: The pilot displays an above-average understanding of automated systems, with errors corrected before they impact the flight. Level 5: The pilot displays flawless performance with detailed technical understanding of underlying system architecture; the pilot actively seeks to improve their technical knowledge. (During his session, Lutat said maybe 5 percent of pilots flying today qualify at Level 5.)

Lutat clearly understood that no amount of lecturing would ever be 100 percent effective—that true learning evolves as questions beget more questions. He offered attendees a place to start if they’re serious about surpassing minimums. “Do you understand your airplane’s automation logic beyond pressing the buttons? Do you really understand the flight-control laws that govern your aircraft? Can you explain what will remain on the cockpit displays when various levels of automation begin to fail? Can you recite the missed-approach procedure step by step? It’s all about precision inside the routine. All the answers can be found in the available books on each aircraft. You just need to read them,” he said. The curious are invited to check out the resources at automationairmanship.com.

Étienne Côté offered attendees a look at cockpits that turned against their pilots.
Étienne Côté offered attendees a look at cockpits that turned against their pilots. (Courtesy Bombardier/)

When the Cockpit Becomes Your Enemy

Étienne Côté is a production test pilot and air-safety investigator at Bombardier Business Aircraft. He spoke about a relatively unknown acronym: ACI, or ambiguous cockpit incident. In plain English, that’s when cockpit instruments display conflicting information that confuses the pilot, making the answer to a given problem pretty tough to identify. An example might be receiving stall and overspeed warnings simultaneously. The airplane is unable to tell you what information is valid, or if aural or visual warnings are even accurate. ACI events often evolve into loss-of-control situations because pilots don’t really understand the interface. That leaves them to rely on their abilities, judgment, system knowledge and airmanship skills.

One of the most well-known examples of this was, again, Air France 447, when the aircraft began displaying airspeed inconsistencies. Fairly quickly, the crew lost control of the aircraft. In that accident, the autopilot unexpectedly disconnected, but that was normal for the conditions the system was sensing. The two pilots got distracted trying to figure out why the autopilot shut down; they did little else. Then they lost flight envelope protection, and the crew added incorrect flight-control inputs that made the situation worse. No one in the cockpit mentioned the repeated stall warnings. The aircraft was pitched up 15 degrees with the flying pilot holding the stick all the way back as the aircraft warned, “Stall, stall.” Of course, the A330’s automation stopped creating the aural stall warning when the flight computer’s logic didn’t think a pilot could ever put the airplane in such a high angle of attack. The computer was wrong—and the crew never escaped from the narrow box of thinking that took hold of them.

“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” - Sherlock Holmes
“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” - Sherlock Holmes (iStock/Jevgenij Kulikov/)

Sometimes an ACI occurs because of a simple mechanical failure or possibly the crew’s misunderstanding the aircraft’s modes of operation or logic. They’re relying on the aircraft to fly, but they begin distrusting it. Côté said: “Losing faith in the interface begins to narrow your thinking capabilities. An ACI begins very slowly. It’s insidious. It often devolves to an upset, which rapidly leads to a [loss of control in flight] within as little as 10 seconds. Recovery needs a committed shortcut, but what if you’ve never seen the situation before? It will take the pilot longer to solve the problem. Waiting just a couple of seconds before reacting takes out the spookiness. If you have a doubt, unloading the wing is the best first action.”

Côté concluded his presentation with a dramatic and frightening exercise, showing half the room three different PFDs indicating wildly fluctuating pitch and roll attitudes. One group saw high angles of attack, the other dangerously low pitch attitudes. He later explained the nose-high attitudes were on a regional jet captain’s PFD while the nose-low indications appeared simultaneously on the copilot’s side. It was a moonless night, and the crew most likely had the cockpit lights up as they briefed for an approach. Assuming the captain’s information was correct, the flying pilot shoved the nose down, and the crew lost complete control within 13 seconds. The ensuing crash killed the two pilots aboard.

“It’s difficult for any manufacturer to design systems against insidious failures, things you can’t anticipate,” Côté said. “Pilot understanding of energy management these days is simply declining. Failure-management principles not included in formal training are left to the operator to figure out. There’s very little available time to train for complex and slowly evolving scenarios.” When in doubt, memorize the level flight pitch and power settings for your aircraft before you need them, he said—a reasonable point to begin with for SSD attendees seeking immediate items to put into action.

Bombardier’s Safety Standdown returns to Wichita, Kansas, in 2020.


This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Chart Wise: Boise ILS Y 10R

The ILS Y 10R approach into Boise.
The ILS Y 10R approach into Boise. (Jeppesen/)

With approximately one-third of its annual 128,200 operations traffic count consumed by airline operations and the rest split between air taxi, general aviation and military operations, Boise, Idaho (BOI), demands pilots be on their toes for traffic of all shapes and sizes when visiting. This month’s ILS Y 10 Right approach comes equipped with a number of potential step-down fixes along the way to SITSE, the FAF, as well as the potential for a little maneuvering to the landing runway near the end of the approach and a couple of noted items that might trip up a pilot not paying close attention to the plate.

A. Side Step Minimums

While they don’t appear all that often in IFR flying, sidestep minimums do exist, and they offer a switch from the primary approach runway to a parallel—in this case, 10 Right to 10 Left—once inside the marker. When the weather is good, a sidestep might be issued by ATC or requested by the pilot. Should a pilot flying this approach decide to land on Runway 10 Left, perhaps for traffic or to reduce their after-landing taxi time, they would be subject to an entirely different set of minimums. In the minimums table near the bottom of the plate, the minimums for the full ILS are 3,036 feet. A pilot planning an arrival on Runway 10 Left faces minimums of 3,220 feet (376 feet higher) than when landing on Runway 10 Right.

B. Multiple Feeder Routes

Pilots of aircraft not being vectored to the ILS Y 10 Right procedure can choose a number of “feeder routes” to establish themselves on the inbound track. Denoted by a thick arrow line, three are available on this approach. One begins at RENOL, a second at SALLA and a third from the Boise VOR. Each lead to the JIMMI intersection where a hold or procedure turn can be used to establish an aircraft on the inbound leg. It’s important to pay close attention to the notes attached to each feeder route indicating the conditions under which they’re valid, including a number of different altitudes to JIMMI. For example, aircraft approaching the Boise area northbound on V253 may not use this approach procedure because it would require a complete course reversal from SALLA.

C. Step-downs

Inbound from JIMMI, pilots should be careful because both the BOI VOR and the ILS offer DME. A pilot should be tuned to the ILS frequency 111.1 when using DME outbound on the ILS for a course reversal or when established inbound on the ILS course. A pilot previously using DME from BOI could forget to switch the DME to the localizer frequency, which is important because step-downs at ELUBE and SITSE intersections use the localizer DME. This is enough of a concern because the VOR is not co-located on the airport where the ILS DME is generated, and the notes section at the top of the plate reminds pilots to “use IBOI DME when on LOC course.” Another DME-related point worth noting if flying the approach to LOC, sidestep or circling minimums: In any of these cases, the MAP is not 0.0 DME at the runway threshold but 1.8 DME. Hence pilots should not expect a countdown to “zero” when flying this approach to the MDA missed approach point.

D. Circle South

A note in the circle-to-land minimums indicates that pilots executing this maneuver must remain south of Runway 10 Left-28 Right, no doubt because of the higher terrain to the north and east that climbs to 3,000 feet above the airport elevation.

E. The Missed Approach

The ILS Y 10 Right missed approach asks the pilot to climb to 6,000 feet but not straight ahead. At the missed approach point, pilots must transition from the inbound ILS course to the 113-degree radial of the BOI VOR to the CUBTA intersection formed where the 113 radial intersects the Liberator (LIA) 322 radial. But that’s not all. The pilot must then make a right turn to re-intercept the BOI 113 radial (a 293 course) back to enter the depicted hold at the BOI VOR.


This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Leading Edge: Just Add Aviation

Chuckwalla, another track Younger has flown to, has its own runway, so no need to share a straightaway.
Chuckwalla, another track Younger has flown to, has its own runway, so no need to share a straightaway. (Courtesy Ben Younger/)

I have been hearing about the $100 hamburger since long before I had a pilot certificate. The phrase itself is meant to conjure up the absurdity/passion surrounding aviation, but it always made perfect sense to me. The dream of becoming a pilot was not about access to remote and exotic locations, but rather to visit places I already knew—only to approach them from the air. Even precertificated, I knew that adding aviation to the familiar only sweetens the pot.

Let’s start with food. There’s a reason that overpriced burger is an aviation milestone. My theory is that having a “mission” makes a flight seem more urgent, more necessary and ultimately more defensible. Every pilot I know is just begging for an excuse to head to the airport. And eating is important. If you don’t do it, you will die. That is a fact. A flight in an airplane seems totally justified with such life-or-death stakes.

There’s a great lobster shack in Montauk, New York, where my friend Glenn lives. From my home upstate, it’s a five-hour drive—a worthy pilgrimage on the way there, a complete waste of time on the long road home. Weather permitting and Glenn willing, I fly east. This past summer, everything lined up, and I pulled the airplane from the hangar, excited to move from mountains to ocean in an hour’s time. I can recall crossing the Hudson River as I watched the New York skyline pass off my right wing, then following the long finger of Long Island eastward to land at the tricky field Montauk can sometimes be. After tying down my Beech Bonanza, I hopped in Glenn’s car, and 20 minutes later, we were eating warm, buttered lobster rolls. Glenn marveled that a phone call over breakfast quickly turned into lunch. He asked about the flight and the approach over the beach. He had heard (correctly) that the winds can get weird at Montauk with tall dunes near the runway. I played it down. Flying is normal, I told him. Mundane, even. It’s just like driving a car.

It’s not, of course. It’s magic. Pure magic. I just don’t want to scare the deer. With time, I’ve learned it’s often better to not extol the magical elements of aviation to nonpilot friends. It doesn’t convey the confidence needed to get them on board. We finished our meal, and then I casually climbed back into my V-Tail and, like a bird, flew myself the 140 miles home, 2 miles above the Earth, feeling just as astonished as Glenn.

This past month, while I was working in California, my buddy Carlo Mirarchi, a chef, told me about a restaurant up in San Jose where his mentor cooks. Google informed me this would be a six-hour, eight-minute drive. ForeFlight called it at one hour and 38 minutes. Now I’m no mathematician, but those numbers clearly illustrate that flying would be more fun than driving. I offered to fly us up from Santa Monica. That logic worked for Carlo, who met me at the airport. No magic mentioned. Just practical travel. Nothing to see here.

Actually, quite a bit to see. “Right turn at the shoreline approved” was the instruction from Santa Monica Tower as they cleared us for Runway 21. Departing at sunset, climbing at 1,700 feet per minute, we watched the marine layer begin its creep back toward the coast off Malibu, while the sun disappeared off the left wing. Smooth air and cool temps kept passenger and engine happy, respectively. Autopilot on, route activated, prop pulled back, mixture leaned, engine cowlings closed. With all that done, I leaned my seat back and freely wallowed in the joy of answering my friend’s multiple questions about the new panel and systems. There’s always so much going on for me up there. All of it good. Magic, surely.

The meal was one of the best I’ve had. Food taken to another level. Twenty courses, many ingredients of which I could not identify without the server’s help. My favorite was the fresh truffles over handmade pasta so thin, it was almost translucent. But I found myself sitting there, eating dessert, becoming just as excited to get back to the plane and fly home as I was to sit down to the food. This was the $100 burger, flipped. An incredible meal made almost trivial by the draw of the return flight.

If a good meal could be made magical by flight, this was a pale shadow to the brilliance of what flying did for the other passion in my life, motorcycle racing. The epiphany struck years ago when I saw a photo of a Pilatus PC-12 loaded with two sport bikes in the baggage area. Many times over many years, I have made the 16-hour one-way trip from upstate New York to Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Those road trips were great. Fine memories. But once you learn to fly, a road trip seems arcane. My Ford F-150 might as well have been a pack mule. When I was finally able to rent a Piper Arrow, I had command of a spaceship.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

I flew my friends across the Canadian border in that Arrow to Calabogie, Ontario, the site of my favorite racetrack on Earth. It’s a perfect asphalt ribbon cut and paved into the land, miraculously done without disturbing the surrounding landscape. Racing was something we all loved and knew, but with the Arrow, I had the unique opportunity to introduce my friends to aviation. None of them had ever flown with me before. I had a newly minted complex/high-performance rating under my belt and couldn’t wait to show them what a retractable was capable of. But I had never flown the Arrow with all four seats full, and it is not known for its aerodynamic efficiencies. The phrase “flying brick” has been mentioned.

We made a required stop in Kingston, New York, to clear customs. The approach was fine, but I flared a bit early over the runway, and she dropped the last 5 feet like a Steinway after a crane cable snaps. I saw all the confidence I had accrued during takeoff and cruise drain from my passengers’ faces in one brief gravitational pull. I made sure not to repeat the mistake flying into our destination airport in Ontario. On the way home, confidence restored, I let my friend Ilya, an emergency room doctor, take the controls and watched the sheer joy on his face as he piloted his first airplane. Working at a trauma center, he treats gunshot wounds with the coolness of James Dean. But when his hands grabbed the yoke, his face lit up like a small child.

If I needed further proof that flight sprinkles magic dust on everything, this past winter, I had the opportunity to fly to Inde Motorsports Ranch in Arizona. This racetrack was an airfield in a former life—a common occurrence because the zoning is favorable, the eased noise restrictions are in place, and a runway makes for a perfect straightaway for motorcycles. I called the manager a few days beforehand, and he told me to just radio in when I was close. On approach, I saw bikes racing around the track. I called in, and they paused the session, cleared the track and gave me permission to land. You make it a good one when all your fellow racers are watching. I taxied off the active, returning the asphalt to its double life as a racetrack, then parked and grabbed my gear from the back of the plane. Forty-five minutes later, I threw a leg over a Yamaha Champions Racing School R6 and screamed down that runway at 150 mph. No rotation this time. Just lean angle.

Ever since getting my license, an invitation to a wedding, a track day or just plain old lunch becomes a chance to fly. The first thing I do when presented with an opportunity for travel is open a VFR chart and see where the closest airport is. And I do this with great excitement. I love every minute of the time spent researching and planning a flight. Figuring out a route, planning fuel stops, checking weather, studying instrument approaches are all tasks that fire up some primordial part of my genetic constitution as a human. And as such, I will come up with whatever reason necessary to open that hangar door.

Follow Ben Younger on Instagram


This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Gear Up: Bad Joke?

It’s hard to believe this dent totaled an amazing airplane.
It’s hard to believe this dent totaled an amazing airplane. (Courtesy Dick Karl/)

Well, yes, I had left my phone on the Virgin Atlantic flight to London. So, yes, I was out of touch for the six days it took me to get it back from “Missing X” somewhere in the ductwork of Heathrow Airport. So, yes, there was a delay in receiving your voicemail.

When I did call our longtime aviation-insurance broker, Wenk Insurance, I was rewarded with some somber news regarding the insurance on our 2000 Cessna Citation CJ1—my pride and joy. When I say longtime broker, I am not kidding. I have had completely satisfying relationships with its founder, his daughter and now her son, named Tucker. That’s 40 years’ worth of trust.

The news was not just somber; it felt catastrophic. Our previous insurance for the CJ1 clocked in at just under $15,000 a year for full hull coverage (small deductible) and $5 million in liability with certain understandable, and reasonable, requirements for me to have a minimum number of hours, annual training and a current medical.

The new quote from a different carrier for the same coverage with the same requirements was $45,869—a 212 percent increase.

Let that sink in. Not 15 percent, not 100 percent, but 212 percent. I paid about that much for my first house, but I had help from the GI Bill back then.

Reunited with my phone and sitting at the airport, I felt that old familiar, harrowing feeling. Years ago, airplane ownership was a touch-and-go affair for me. Hangar space and costs, insurance availability and costs, and the ever-lurking maintenance surprises were pushing up against a young man’s capacity to pony up. Many a time, I thought I’d have to sell. Somehow, every time, I found a way to keep the airplane and dispatch the wolves from the hangar door.

As I grew older and had more financial security, these old fears became just cautionary tales filed in the back of my mind—right next to that time I forgot to pay the gas bill and came home to find the apartment freezing cold. But now, this quote would make keeping the airplane untenable.

I quickly emailed Tucker to find out that insurance at a lower price was available, but I’d have to have an approved ATP pilot in the right seat. For a measly $16,000, I could keep the same coverage as I was enjoying that very moment. Of course, the whole point of a single-pilot light jet is that you get to fly yourself, when and where you want, without hiring somebody who has no desire to go where you are going when you want to go.

As a steady stream of steam shot out of my ears, I thought about the predicament. I was, for many years, the proverbial doctor in a Beech Bonanza. I was a devoted hobbyist, one whose experience had been accrued at the lightning clip of 100 hours per year over 47 years. I had never flown professionally, never flown a jet. (Also true: I had never owned a Bonanza.)

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

That all changed when, in an insane career change, I gave up being a surgical oncologist at a university to fly Part 135 in a Cessna Citation CJ3. There, I learned what professional flying was all about. I can see how underwriters might be skeptical of owner pilots and their single-pilot light jets. Maybe, I thought, I could negotiate something with my longtime insurance company. And so I sat down to write the following:

“I understand the underwriters’ concerns. I know several owner pilots, and a few worry me too. I have heard one brag about landing with minimum fuel after flying a leg well in excess of published range, and I have known of one taking off his jet from a taxiway by mistake. I work hard to not be that guy.

Not until I flew professionally did I fully understand the difference between a pro and a hobbyist. I do not fly at night. I do not try to extend range. I do not land at airports without instrument approaches. I do not land on runways less than 4,000 feet. I obsessively use checklists. … (As for the issue of age,) I am not overweight, take no medicines other than eyedrops and don’t fly when fatigued. Yes, our Premier jet suffered a bird strike. Had the airplane been supported by the manufacturer, the repairs would have cost less than two years’ worth of premiums.”

Thanks to the Wenks’ advocacy, I was rewarded with a new policy with less liability coverage at a 51 percent increase in premium. Threateningly, it came with a warning: No single-pilot flying after next year.

You have, no doubt, read the explanations for the “hardening” of the aviation-insurance market. Many companies have left the market, upsetting the supply-demand ratio. Some companies argue increased claims, but when I look at FAA and National Transportation Safety Board websites, I don’t see a 200 percent spike in accidents or costly fatalities. In fact, general aviation deaths have ranged from 300 to 500 per year for a decade.

Some claim the secondary insurance market has been disrupted by the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max, thus influencing the insurance price for a Cessna 172. For all I know, some might be claiming the rise of two-toned shoes is the culprit. What’s with the white bottom and brown top?

All I know is that we are threatened. My broker assures me that my carrier knows the bird strike that took out our Premier Jet was not pilot error. Nonetheless, he says, they had to write a big check. That is true. But when I look back at 48 years of premium payments I have made, factor in the salvage price they got for the Premier’s engines, etc., their loss isn’t that much. Certainly not 212 percent more than last year. LOL? I don’t think so.


This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Aftermath: Midair

A contributing factor, the NTSB said, was “the stepped-down configuration of the formation flight which was composed of dissimilar aircraft.”
A contributing factor, the NTSB said, was “the stepped-down configuration of the formation flight which was composed of dissimilar aircraft.” (NTSB/)

On a Saturday morning in April 2017, a swarm of airplanes—40 pilots attended the preflight briefing—took off from Spruce Creek Airport in Florida for a flight to nearby Titusville to attend an EAA pancake breakfast. The Saturday morning breakfast flight to various destinations is a tradition at the private airstrip, the centerpiece of a gated community with a population of several thousand residents and hundreds of airplanes.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s report, one group of five airplanes made up a “wide, loose” V-formation, which one pilot said “was normal for en route.” In the lead was a Great Lakes biplane. Behind it to the right was a Cessna 170, and behind the Cessna was a Grumman Lynx, originally the Bede-designed two-seat American Yankee.

On the left side of the V was a Grumman Tiger, and behind and to the left of the Tiger was a Decathlon.

The formation assembled on the way to 1,000 feet and turned southward toward Titusville. The morning sun—20 degrees above the horizon—was to the left and in the eyes of the pilots on the right side of the formation, who needed to look left to hold position. The flight lead ordered a change to a left echelon formation, in which all five airplanes would form a staggered line to the lead’s left. All would then be looking to the right, away from the sun.

In principle, a formation consists of “elements” of two airplanes, or sometimes one. The Great Lakes and Tiger were the first element in the formation; the two airplanes to the right of the Great Lakes formed the second element and as such would move into place together between the Tiger and the Decathlon, which constituted a third element. The Decathlon would first drop back along the diagonal line of the left side of the V to open up space. The second element would then shift laterally behind the lead, dropping down slightly to pass below the lead’s wake. The 170 would take up a position behind and to the left of the Tiger, and the Lynx would continue sliding sideways, passing behind the 170 and lining up behind it to its left. Finally, the Decathlon would tuck in to complete the evenly spaced echelon. During this maneuver, the 170 would fly by reference to the Tiger, the Lynx by reference to the 170 and the Decathlon by reference to the Lynx.

Something went wrong.

Moments after he commanded the shift from the V to echelon formation, the flight leader saw a “flash.” He immediately pulled up and out of the formation. To the Lynx pilot, the transition appeared “slow and normal” until he saw parts and vapor fly past him. He then saw the Tiger pitching up, appearing to “be past vertical…almost like it was in a loop.” The right wing of the Cessna appeared to fold upward, and its tail swung to the left. He saw the flight leader pull up, and he himself banked steeply to the left, out of the formation.

Witnesses on the ground reported that both the 170 and the Tiger fell vertically to the ground. The flight leader saw the 170 descend “like a falling-leaf maneuver,” its right wing appearing “folded over.”

Examination of the wreckage of the two airplanes revealed that the 170 had come up beneath the Tiger, whose propeller had severed the Cessna’s right flap tracks, the inboard end of its right aileron and its aileron cables. The wing had remained in place; it was the dangling flap that made it appear to witnesses as if the wing had folded over. The empennage and the portion of the tail cone to which it was attached had completely separated, however, and were attached to the airplane only by control cables, which were twisted around one another multiple times. The wreckage of the Tiger was also badly mutilated, but the only damage that definitely occurred during the collision was gouges in the propeller blades made by the Cessna’s aileron control cables.

The pilots of both airplanes were ATPs and instructors with over 10,000 hours and multiple ratings and type ratings. Both were airline pilots.

The NTSB attributed the accident to “the Cessna pilot’s failure to maintain clearance from the Grumman...” A contributing factor, the NTSB said, was “the stepped-down configuration of the formation flight which was composed of dissimilar aircraft.”

That the Cessna pilot had failed to remain clear of the Tiger was indisputable. Why the NTSB thought it happened was more difficult to understand, but the reference to a “stepped-down configuration” of “dissimilar aircraft” gives a hint. “Dissimilar” means a mix of high-wing and low-wing aircraft. The pilots of military airplanes sit high, surrounded by a transparent canopy or greenhouse; a civilian pilot’s view is obstructed by wings, the cabin roof and window frames. The NTSB evidently thought that mixing types increased the likelihood of creating complementary blind spots.

Read More from Peter Garrison: Aftermath

The crossover from right to left required the 170 to drop down a little to avoid the wake of the leader. I suspect the 170 pilot lowered his nose slightly and kept the Great Lakes in view as he crossed. He reduced power at the same time, so as not to gain speed. However, he did not accurately balance pitch and power in such a way as to drift backward, and his own high wing blocked his view of the Tiger, while the Tiger’s low wing blocked its pilot’s view of him. In the event, he came up below and ahead of the Tiger, whose propeller sliced into his right wing from above.

Did the pilot of the Tiger see anything before the collision? Probably—the Cessna’s nose was well ahead of the Tiger’s. The Tiger’s nearly vertical pullup may have been an instinctive reaction to a peripheral glimpse of white below and to the left. The NTSB report makes no judgment as to whether the Tiger remained controllable after the collision; possibly, it stalled and spun after the pullup, and the pilot failed to recover because of the low altitude.

Formation flying is a recreational activity that many pilots enjoy. During the 1990s, efforts to ensure the safety of formation flying led the T-34 Association to create its own Formation Flight Manual, which was eventually adopted by a number of other organizations in the warbird community. Eventually, a system of education, training and certification of formation pilots—particularly intended to qualify pilots to participate in airshows—came into being.

Formation flying was regularly practiced at Spruce Creek under the rubric of the informal Gaggle Flight Formation Group. Some pilots in the group had formation certification, some didn’t—it was not required. When new, uncertified pilots joined, group members “would keep them at a distance” until their abilities became apparent. The NTSB seems to have taken a dim view of the “Gaggle Flight” formation manual, which is a simplified and lighter-hearted version of the original T-34 Association document. The manual, the NTSB complained, “did not reveal any evidence of a structured program that provided standards for formation training and flying, a system for proficiency evaluation, a method for monitoring currency, or any formation-standards evaluation guides or forms.” It also cited an FAA advisory circular, AC 90-48D, that cautioned formation pilots to “recognize the high statistical probability of their involvement in midair collisions.”

According to an article that appeared in the Daytona Beach News-Journal after the release of the final NTSB report in September 2019, a Spruce Creek spokesperson conceded that formation flying was riskier than other types of flying but denied that it was “probable” that it would lead to a midair collision. The NTSB’s members, he said, “don’t like the freedom” of the Gaggle’s lack of strict standards. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the crash had led some residents, including him, “to rethink whether they’re willing to take the additional risk that accompanies formation flight.”

“I think a lot of folks kind of stepped back from it a bit,” he said.


This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Taking Wing: To Fly like an Eagle

Takeoff here involves running straight off Pedra Bonita’s inclined ramp.
Takeoff here involves running straight off Pedra Bonita’s inclined ramp. (Courtesy Sam Weigel/)

Once every year or two, I have a peculiar and memorable dream while I sleep. I am quite sure I’m not alone among pilots—and likely among mere mortals as well—in occasionally dreaming that I’m flying. I don’t mean flying in an aircraft or manipulating the controls—although I have those dreams too. I mean bird dreams, minus the molting and the worm diet—just pure, joyful, unadulterated flight, wheeling over the earth with absolute freedom, borne on unseen wings.

I’ve had these dreams since early childhood, well before I knew what flying actually felt and looked like, which leads me to believe that man has dreamed of flight as long as man has dreamed, and these dreams likely helped to inspire the eventual realization of their subject. So far as I can recall, however, none of my bird dreams actually included the taking off part, only majestic soaring. Well, it’s majestic soaring that I’m after today, but to get there I have to take off in decidedly nonbirdlike fashion: run pell-mell down a short-sloped ramp and take a leap of faith into a 1,500-foot chasm with the beachside suburb of São Conrado, Brazil, far below.

“Samuel, are you ready?” Manny asks enthusiastically. Manuel Navarro is a tall, thin Brazilian whose job it is to conduct me back to terra firma safely. “Yes, I am ready,” I respond with much more confidence than I actually feel. Up until a second ago, I was still sussing out how we both fit inside and around the triangular framework and bracing of the tandem hang glider without tripping over each other as we run and jump. That would be bad.

Manny was very clear about one thing during our three practice runs, sans glider, in the assembly area: Once you start running, do not stop. Manny has had two students develop second thoughts on the last few feet of the launch ramp, and both times, the result was a nasty crash into the steep hillside below. So when Manny gives me a little sideways nod and says, “Let’s run,” I run like hell, pumping my legs with abandon to keep up with his long strides, until we’ve literally run right off the edge of the ramp, our legs flailing at air like Wile E. Coyote. For one heart-dropping moment, we fall.

I have Kelly Gravesen to thank for giving me the idea to go hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro. Kelly’s a kindred spirit, a taildragger-wrangling North Dakota farm boy and fellow UND alum who is also a Boeing 757/767 first officer for my airline. Like me, Kelly likes to get out and about on his layovers. The way I see it, an airline pilot spends a good third of his or her life away from home. There are those who hate the fact, complain about it in the cockpit, and go lock themselves away on layovers. I can’t help but think how much of their life they are wasting, and wonder what exactly they were thinking when they got into this career.

Alternatively, you can treat layovers as opportunities to do neat things in places you might have not gone on your own, or to scout out a place to which you might want to return on vacation. I spend most layovers hiking, exploring, socializing with other crew, visiting far-flung friends, finding neat little bars and restaurants, perusing museums, driving or motorcycling scenic roads, and scratching my flying itch in something smaller and more fun than the 767. Knowing this, Kelly gave me the recommendation and contact information for Rio Hang Gliding. It helps that Kelly is slightly senior to me in our base, or I might have taken his suggestion as a naked attempt to move up a number.

Which is to say that hang gliding does not quite appear to be the safest form of aviation there is, at least to an outsider. There’s not much to the aircraft, with virtually no external protection in case of a crash. The hang-gliding community exists largely outside of general aviation; it’s more on the adrenaline sports-junkie spectrum. You won’t find these guys on any airport, and in the US, they are completely unregulated. Rio de Janeiro, then, isn’t the first place you’d think to try it. Mind you, I absolutely love Rio; it’s become my bidding destination of choice for two northern winters now. The weather is great, the scenery is gorgeous, the people are lovely, the food is good, there’s a ton of cool stuff to do, and on lazier days the caipirinhas go down easily after a day spent basking in the January sun on Copacabana Beach.

The author and instructor Manny Navarro circle over the coastal suburb of São Conrado.
The author and instructor Manny Navarro circle over the coastal suburb of São Conrado. (Courtesy Sam Weigel/)

But there’s no question that Brazil is a country undergoing economic challenges, and Rio is a city where a large portion of the population lives in virtually unregulated, effectively lawless favelas. It’s a place where visitors have to pay attention to personal safety. Rio Hang Gliding, however, appeared to be a first-class outfit started by a veteran competitive hang glider, and Manny reassured me that the sport is quite regulated in Brazil—to a much greater extent than in the States.

Not that this is much consolation as we take our running leap into empty air. My stomach drops out from under me for just a moment, and then the wing fills and catches with a swoosh of air, and we swoop exhilaratingly skyward. It takes a few seconds to get situated, my harness next to and slightly behind Manny’s, both of us tilting down into the aerodynamic prone position. Then I look around and start grinning like a damned fool. It’s exactly like a bird dream: pure unadulterated flight, pure joy, just the sun and the wind and a wisp of a wing in my peripheral vision.

Manny lets me “take the controls” to make a turn towards the granite monolith of Pedra da Gávea, and two things immediately surprise me. The first is just how stable the hang glider is. I somehow had envisioned having to make constant inputs to keep the tiny craft on the desired flight path (a la hovering helicopter), but steady flight is basically a hands-off affair. This stability makes sense when you look at a hang glider close up because the occupant’s harness is suspended from a single point immediately forward of the wing’s center of lift.

The second surprise is just how natural weight-shift control feels. Coming from a lifetime of manipulating traditional three-axis controls, I expected to think of the A-frame as a stick and get flummoxed by the reverse control. As an antidote I repeatedly reminded myself before the flight to think of myself as the stick. As it turns out, once airborne, such mental gymnastics are entirely unnecessary. You just look where you want to go, ease yourself that way, and the craft responds. Bird flight. Magical.

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

Hang gliders aren’t nearly as efficient as their rigid-wing brethren, but they can still stay aloft for lengthy periods under the right conditions. Manny told me that experienced hang gliders—of whom Rio has many—regularly soar to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue several miles away and back. Alas, the morning of my flight is dead calm, and it’s a one-way sled ride to the designated landing beach at São Conrado. After a much-too-quick seven minutes, Manny makes a circling approach over the high-rise-lined coast, sequencing himself for landing with several other hang gliders and paragliders.

The landing itself is considerably easier than I expected despite an absolute lack of wind on the beach. Like the launch, the cardinal rule is to “just keep running” because any premature stoppage results in a faceplant or the entire glider going tail-over-teakettle. Manny compliments me on being an excellent passenger (“Yes, I certainly know when to shut up and don’t do nothin’ dumb”), we watch several more gliders landing, and I review the GoPro footage from our flight. It’s beautiful, but it fails to fully capture the firsthand bird-flight experience or adrenaline rush of launching off the ramp.

I’m glad I got to experience hang gliding once, particularly in such a scenic location, but I’m not sure whether I’ll do it again. It did remind me of the things I like so much about traditional soaring—the rigid-wing variety—and I realized that the open-air aspect of hang gliding isn’t even the essential part of the bird-flight experience. It’s the quiet rush of wind, the jostle of lift, the upward spiral in a thermal.

I’ve been intending to get my glider rating for a while, and had planned to do it this past summer until those months turned into the busiest of my life. I realized if I wanted to make a glider rating happen in 2020, I’d better set aside the time now. So as soon as I got back to Copacabana Beach, I emailed Sarah Arnold, the glider CFI and Chilhowee Gliderport operator who my good friend (and Sarah’s US Soaring Team teammate) Sylvia Grandstaff recommended. Sarah was enthusiastic and accommodating with my schedule, and it’s all set up. I just have to make it through glider training with aircraft and ego intact, and I’ll tell you all about it in a couple months.


This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Unusual Attitudes: Frustrated in Florida

“Calm down, Martha. Do this with grace and good humor. There are things in life that just have to be endured,” George said.
“Calm down, Martha. Do this with grace and good humor. There are things in life that just have to be endured,” George said. (Philippe de Kemmeter/)

After a weekend with friends at Kentucky’s Lake Cumberland, my niece and her husband were packing up for the drive home. Somebody tossing garbage bags into a dumpster spied a bundle of discarded Playboy magazines in pristine condition all from the 1980s.

“Any of you guys interested in old Playboy magazines?”

My psychologist nephew-in-law, Jim, took one, as did most of the guys. A week or so later, Jim gave me his copy because he knows David Mamet and I are friends, and this issue (August 1989) included an essay by the famous author, playwright and former Flying columnist.

Nothing to do with sex, voluptuous pinups or airplanes (and written long before David began flying), it’s about his love affair with amusement parks. He compares the rough-and-tumble but magical park of his youth—Riverview Park on Chicago’s North Side—to Florida’s Disney World, which he first visited with his family the year it opened in 1971.

Many years later, he returned with his own 5-year-old on what happened to be Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday. David describes the colorful parade, singing the familiar Mickey song, smiling and feeling good. Then he stopped and asked himself: What exactly was he endorsing?

“How and to what end this warm feeling?”

He concludes that, rather than celebrating the birthday of an (albeit) iconic mouse, he was doing what was expected of guests: enthusiastically celebrating and extending fervent well-wishes to one of the most commercial of all enterprises.

Reading David’s description of the park and Disney’s genius at crowd control where visitors endure long lines for 55 minutes of every hour—how they accept regimentation and willingly suffer a vague but oppressive feeling of being watched and controlled—I burst into laughter. That same year, long before I knew David, I’d visited Disney World with the very same reaction.

A would-be beau from Dayton, Ohio, owned a Piper PA-28-161 Cherokee that had rarely been out of the traffic pattern at the airport where he learned to fly. He asked if I’d fly it with him on a trip over Thanksgiving; he wasn’t instrument-rated and had never flown long distances. With no plans for the holiday, I thought any airplane trip would be fun, but George…well, George just wasn’t my kind of guy. So I agreed if we’d travel strictly as friend—separate rooms, paying our own ways.

He picked me up at Lunken airport, and we launched for Pensacola, Florida, stopping I don’t remember where. The airplane was minimally equipped and legal for IFR. I had charts and was OK for “soft” IFR if we encountered weather typical for Midwestern Novembers, but it was clear skies and visibility unlimited the whole way with a tailwind, and George thoroughly enjoyed flying his airplane. The next day at the Naval Air Museum was wonderful (truly a must-see), and then we stayed another day touring the Panhandle.

Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes

When he described Cedar Key, Florida, it sounded perfect. We took off on what could have been a two-hour direct flight but was longer because we stayed within gliding distance of land, flying via Apalachicola and Perry, and then hugging the shoreline south to Cedar Key. As Rob Mark wrote recently, this laid-back, charming treasure on the northwest coast of Florida encompasses just 2 square miles. And its 2,355-foot runway is in the middle of a wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary where the birds have the right of way.

“Things” had been going well, but now, three nights into the trip and on this romantic little spit of land, George was getting snarky because I wouldn’t budge on the separate-rooms thing at Cedar Key’s quaint 150-year-old Island Hotel.

But he brightened up when I agreed to fly to Orlando and go to Disney World—though I couldn’t quite understand why that was so attractive to an adult male. But George was learning a lot about handling congested airspace and communicating with approach control and traffic. We landed unremarkably at Orlando and agreed to save Disney World for the next day.

We each paid what seemed in those days to be an exorbitant entrance fee (probably $50), and strolling down the midway, George spied an interesting attraction. I was now in a line that snaked back and forth like some monstrous python, sticky hot under a merciless sun, shoved and kicked by hordes of beastly behaving kids, and assaulted by the shrill complaints of exasperated mothers looking for a restaurant that would take a lunch reservation. It was dreadful.

“Calm down, Martha. Do this with grace and good humor. There are things in life that just have to be endured,” George said.

“Yeah? Well, this isn’t one of them. George, give me the car keys,” I demanded.

“What?”

“I’m leaving. Give me the keys and tell me what time to pick you up at the front entrance.”

I fled, my friend’s mouth agape, stopping at the Disney office just inside the entrance to tell them what I thought of this “enforced, regulated-fun” experience. They were gracious and even insisted on refunding my money, but they’d have to escort me to the gate.

I think I messed around back at the airport but was careful to collect my friend at five o’clock. We didn’t talk about Disney World very much.

Next was another short hop to St. Augustine for Thanksgiving, but George was back to alternately grumbling and whining about the room thing. We’d planned on a few days more in Florida, but I’d had enough. The weather forecast from northern Georgia through Tennessee and Kentucky wasn’t great, but it looked like we could get on top north of Atlanta. Unusually warm temperatures indicated that icing at low altitudes shouldn’t be a problem. I announced the bus was leaving the next morning; we were flying home to Ohio.

A planned fuel stop in northern Georgia would give us good fuel reserves for the flight and an instrument approach in Dayton. But after being airborne for less than an hour, George halted discussing his ex-wife and announced he had to go to the bathroom. I pointed to the pee bottle in back, but he said he “couldn’t.” So we landed in Macon, Georgia, but now—with 48 gallons usable, burning maybe 10 gph, and 450 nautical miles to go at 110 knots into the wind plus an approach—we weren’t so comfortable.

We got on top, with no ice reports underneath but a considerable headwind, and approaching Cincinnati, we found Dayton weather was coming down (besides, I had to pee now). So I made an approach into Lunken instead, promised to fly his airplane back later, and we drove to Dayton, giving thanks for turkey dinner at Bob Evans on Interstate 75.


This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine