Hangin’ with the Ninety-Nines

Women having been flying planes pretty much since day one. Well, OK, technically since day 1,740. It was an all-boys club between Orville and September 21, 1908, when Thérèse Peltier first took wing.

But during the first decades of flight many people, men and women alike, didn’t think that females had the Right Stuff. Some people believed women weren’t physically strong enough to fly. Others that they weren’t bold enough to fly. Others still, that they weren’t smart enough to fly.

I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of women who are stronger, braver, and smarter than I am.

But I digress. For early Aviatrixes it was an uphill battle to be taken seriously, so in 1929 Ninety-nine of the leading lady flyers banded together to form an organization called the Ninety-Nines to promote and support women fliers. The organization still exists to this day.

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And it’s still an all-girls club; which I’m OK with—because even though today women sit left seat on the biggest aircraft in the skies, fly combat missions, and win air races—the fairer sex still represents only a single-digit percent of licensed pilots. I have no idea why. Women, just like men, can be awesome pilots or crappy pilots. Gender has nothing to do with it.

But there is one place in modern aviation where there are a ton of women, and that’s flying right beside their pilot men-folk in the role lovingly referred to as “non-pilot navigators.” Plenty of wives, girlfriends, and presumably mistresses, ride right-seat to male pilots every day in the skies over our country. Some have a lot of training. Some have a little. Many of them don’t know a thing about the plane other than how to buckle their seatbelts. Some of these women love flying. Some like it. Some tolerate it. Some hate it and are scared to death every time they step foot in an airplane.

Ninety-Nines to the rescue.

The Ninety-Nines created a “Flying Companion Seminar” that’s designed to teach pilots’ flying companions some important basics. Like how the plane flies. How to read an aeronautical chart. How the radio works and who you can talk to. What the instruments can tell you. Safety tips, things about weather, and what the various parts of the plane do.

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But the real meat of the course is this: What do you do if something “bad” happens to the pilot and he can no longer fly? The course focuses on how to keep the plane in the air and how to call for help using the radios and other onboard systems.

A few years ago, the Ninety-Nines offered this seminar here in New Mexico. We’d just bought the Plane Tales Plane at the time and I planned to take Debs, Rio, Mom, and Mick to the seminar. I can’t recall what came up, but we ended up not going.

Then Rio advanced quickly into a student pilot role, and with Mick being so ill for so long, Debs and I didn’t get to fly together at all. One of the two of us was always tending to her mother. There was no way for the two of us to go anywhere as a couple for nearly the entire time we’ve owned the plane.

Debbie’s wings got clipped before she ever had a chance to grow a pair.

But now that her mother has taken wing in another way, Debs and I are finally flying together. That’s when I got a notice that the seminar was being offered again. I printed the email and left it on our mutual desk with the note: “Wanna go?” scrawled on the top in red ink—my “editing” pen for proof reading. A few days later I noticed she had replied, “Yes, please” on the bottom.

(We’re still haven’t gotten out of the habit of not being able to do things together.)

So I registered us for the course and I blocked off the calendar for the day. It was a daylong affair so we chose to drive to it rather than fly.

On the day of the seminar as we were signing in, right after I’d suck my sticky name tag to one of my flight jackets (I have more than a few), Susan Larson, a past president of the Ninety-Nines and a champion air racer, surprised me by marching straight up to me and asking, “Are you Bill Dubois, the writer?”

I write under William, but many people feel compelled to automatically shorten William to Bill, so, pleased as punch to be recognized, and assuming she’d read one of my recent pieces in either AOPA Pilot or Flight Training, I said, Why yes I am. However, as we chatted, it quickly became clear she’d mistaken me for a different writer with a similar name.

I think we were both disappointed.

But the seminar itself was anything but disappointing.

Of course, I was there to be supportive. I didn’t expect to actually learn anything. After all, I’ve been flying for over 30 years, have a college degree in this stuff, and over the past year have written articles on nearly every element of flight training.

How wrong I was.

There were about 20 women there (and three other males, all pilots with their ladies); and what I learned was how frightened our non-pilot navigators were as a group, and what a piss-poor job we pilots had done in recognizing those fears and giving our flying companions the tools needed to master those fears.

And I learned that, as both a husband and as a pilot, what a poor job I’d done of teaching Debs what she needs to know should something happen to me while we are flying. Of course, these kinds of conversations don’t come easy to spouses, so as the seminar went on, I jotted notes on the back of my agenda. A checklist of sorts. Things I needed to teach my flying companion.

I challenge all you pilots to make a similar checklist. Your aircraft and companion may vary… well your companion had better vary, anyway… Then, like all checklists, follow the damn thing. And not just once!

Pilot’s Flying Companion Checklist (sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to do check boxes in WordPress, so bullets will have to do…)

  • Sitting in your plane, show your companion how to set YOUR com-radio to the emergency frequency of 121.5, where your mike buttons are, and how to set the volume.
  • Sitting in your plane, show your companion where your transponder is, how to set it to the emergency setting of 7700, and where the Ident button is.
  • Take the Seminar Workbook and sit in your plane to show your companion what’s the same in your plane, and what’s different.
  • Make your companion learn how to fly the damn plane straight and level, even if your companion doesn’t want to. Aim for safe control, not perfection. Then make sure she (or he) can do a gentle banking turn.
  • Have the “talk” with your companion about what to do in a crash. The seminar gave the advice to “stay with the plane.” That’s only half right. In a forced landing, the first thing you should do when the plane stops moving is get the hell out. There are a lot of hot parts and a lot a gas, and depending on how many pieces the plane is in, there’s always a risk of a “post-impact fire.” You should stay at the scene of the crash, but not necessarily in the plane. At least, not at first.
  • Try to talk your companion into at least one or two flights with an instructor. Never teach your spouse how to drive a stick. Never try to teach your spouse how to land a plane. Some things are just better left to the pros.
  • Help your companion personalize her (or his) Flight Journal—a flying diary that’s a gift from the Ninety-Nines that has key information needed in an emergency. Information that no one expects flying companions to know and remember.

And one final thing on my personal checklist…

  • Send the Ninety-Nines a “thank you” note.

I think every pilot should take a Ninety-Nines Flying Companion Seminar. We go to great lengths to learn all we can about flying: Aerodynamics, aeronautical navigation, aircraft systems, FAA regulations, radio communication, and weight and balance. We attend seminars on weather, airspace, mountain flight, emergencies, and more.

But how many of us have ever taken a seminar to help us learn more about the most important thing in the airplane? Our loved ones?

Find a Flying Companion Seminar near you today and sign up. It will make you a better pilot, and you’ll get to spend the day with a group of strong, brave, and smart women—pilots and non-pilots alike.

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Twilight Delight

Aviation and spontaneity are a poor mix. Sure, you can go jump in your plane, fire it up, and roar off into the sunset. If you’re crazy. Because there are things you need to do on the ground before you get into the air that ensure you get back onto the ground again (in one piece).

Ya’ gotta check the oil. The fuel. Make sure there’s no water in your gas tanks and that no birds made nests in your air intakes. You need to check to make sure all your hinges and cables are intact on all the moving parts of the plane. Check the weather, look for temporarily closed airspace, and all the rest.

A good preflight ensures safe flight.

But that doesn’t mean that every flight needs to be planned days in advance, either. There’s room for controlled spontaneity. Take last night, for instance. We’d gone up to Vegas (the little one that you can’t see from space) to attend the 30th Anniversary of a friend’s art gallery, and as we were driving home I was admiring the sky.

OK, you got me. I wasn’t admiring the sky. I was lusting after it.

The afternoon was dead calm, nearly cloudless. The sun, although beginning to sink low, was still high above the desert horizon. Wow. It’s light sooooooo late, I thought to myself, this daylight savings time really rocks.

Maybe… Maybe… Maybe there’s time to slip in a twilight flight.

I started calculating. The sun has been setting around 7pm, so civil twilight—my legal wheels on the ground time flying Light Sport—would be not quite a half hour later. It was 5:30 and we were on the road coming home. We’d still need to unload the car, gather our flight gear, and then drive the 45 minutes down to the airport… Yeah. We could get in half an hour for sure. Maybe even 45 minutes. I ran the math in my head twice just to make sure, then glanced into the rear view mirror to catch Rio’s eye. I pointed to the sky and he nodded enthusiastically.

The sun was low on the horizon when we arrived at our hangar at the Route 66 Airport. The sky was golden yellow, the blue turning peach overhead. I pulled Tessie out into the dying light of the day, and we preflighted. Fuel and oil good. No water in the tanks, no bird nests in the vents. All the hinges moved as they should and all the cables were connected.

The weather I’m guilty of not checking, but we weren’t going far. Weren’t going anywhere, really.

Next to our hangar, inside the perimeter fence, is a mobile home where a police officer and his family live. Outside the fence is a gaggle of other mobile homes stretched out along Airport Road (along with an abandoned modular building with fading paint that says “Lupe’s Lounge”). All of these “neighbors” generally ignore us to the point where we might as well not exist. Well, at least up until tonight. About a week or so ago, an RV showed up parked next to one of these airport row houses. I don’t know if the guy is just visiting or has moved in, but he leaves his front door wide open and plays very loud rock and roll music. Loud enough that the volume is about right inside my hangar 75 yards away. Oh, well, at least his “play list” is pretty good.

Last night, however, as we were finishing up our preflight, he came running up to the fence, waving his hands and shouting, “I love you guys.”

Clearly, I thought to myself, the man is drunk. Just ignore the drunk, I told Rio and finished up our preflight without responding to our new neighbor. We climbed in, buckled in, slid the doors up over our heads, and fired up the engine. As we taxied out, the man ran along the fence line, happily waving. I finally caved in to his enthusiasm and waved back.

The bottom rim of the sun kissed the horizon as we back-taxied along runway 26, the Plane Tales Plane casting a wicked, long shadow ahead of her, revealing her inner predatory bird.

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Then (after a proper runup and setting the mixture control) we roared off into the gathering gloom. Already sunlight was gone from the face of the earth, but we rose from shadow and caught up to the golden rays.

What a wild character, back there by the hangar, I told Rio, must have been drunk off his gourd.

Rio’s voice crackled back through the intercom, “Or who knows, maybe he’s a Plane Tales fan.”

Oh dear. I felt my heart sink in my chest. Wouldn’t that be ironic? We meet a devoted fan of the blog for the first time and think he’s a drunk. So dear RV neighbor: If you’re a fan, please accept my apology for assuming you were just a drunk. And if your both drunk and a fan, that’s OK, too.

“But one thing’s for sure,” Rio continued, “he’s sure a fan of airplanes.”

Yeah, I said, you’re right about that. And fan of us, or fan of planes, I guess he’s earned a show. Passing through 300 feet I banked into a steep turn back towards the hangar. I leveled off at 500, flew half-way down the runway perpendicular to the one we lifted off from, took a sharp left above taxiway Foxtrot, and overflew the RV. I could see “our” fan jumping up and down and waving. We circled once, wagged our wings, and headed south to enjoy the sunset.

But as sunsets go, it was a bit lame.

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New Mexico sunsets tend to be a riot of colors. Tonight, instead, was mere soft pastels. But where the sky disappointed, the ground excelled. Like blooming flowers, lights came on one by one. Street lights. Porch lights. Headlights of cars illuminating their mysterious journeys. The pulsing red and blue orbs of an ambulance. The interstate became a glowing snake, slithering off to the horizon. I keyed the mike button on my yoke seven times and our two runways blazed to life, each a pair of long parallel lights. Carefully laid-out jewel necklaces ready for an elegant soiree.

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I kept one eye on the horizon and one eye on my watch. With ten minutes to spare I entered the pattern to land, the terrain below now in deep gloom. I knew there were power lines off the approach end of runway 26, but I couldn’t see them in the dusky grey light. I held high. Too high. I’m going around, I told Rio, advanced the throttle to the firewall, and gently lifted the nose. We roared over the runway and climbed back up into the pattern for another go at it.

Now it was getting seriously dim, the face of the earth losing its texture, the runway edge lights glowing like miniature bonfires.

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Down, down, down we came, using the chain of lights to judge our angle and altitude. As we swept over the threshold, our landing light illuminated the runway’s pavement. The center stripes glowed like ghosts in the artificial beam of moonlight stabbing out from beneath our left wing. I gently flared and dropped back onto mother earth.

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I looked at my watch. One minute and thirty seconds to spare.

We taxied back to our hangar and shut down. The rock n’ roll music was silent. The night was gathering strength. Jupiter shone like a solitary diamond in the evening sky. Rio pulled himself out of the cockpit, rested his arms on top of the canopy and took in the view.

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“We need to do this more often,” he said.

 

Birds of a feather

Jean, owner of the Plane Tales Plane–although still learning to fly–is no stranger to flying things, she’s spent a lifetime as a “birder.” Today she shares her thoughts on things that fly and the love of flight….

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One of my favorite bird pics, by Andrew Jagniecki

At rest stops and city parks all over the United States, a whole family of black birds congregates: Crows, ravens, starlings, cowbirds, grackles, blackbirds, vultures.

After a bit of practice, it isn’t hard to tell them apart, except for the crows and ravens, which are much of a size and tend to sit on tops of fence posts glaring at the passers-by.

Once in the air, however, there’s no way you can confuse them. The crow is all business; he knows where he’s going and flap, flap, flap, he goes straight there. As the crow flies. The raven, on the other hand, flies for the pure joy of flying. He dives and swoops and we can almost think we hear him shouting Wow! This is great!!

Unless I have some really lucrative assignment, I’ll have to admit I’m a raven, not a crow.

Which are you?

 

Why Angels have wings

We pilots need an excuse to fly. I don’t know why, flying is fun. We should just be able to say, “Hey I’m going flying because it brings me joy,” but instead we always make up “reasons” to take wing.

Don’t believe me? Look no further than the infamous $100 hamburger. Everyone in aviation knows what a $100 hamburger is. It’s an excuse to fly. In this case, the excuse is that you have to take your friends to a neighboring airport for a “great” meal you just can’t get at home. Of course, it’s nonsense. The burger is generally no better—and sometimes far worse—than you can get down the street, and the commuting cost really adds to the price (hence the name).

It’s just an excuse to fly.

But during the last few years a new kind of excuse to fly has blossomed, and it’s one that benefits society at the same time that it serves our need for an excuse to fly. Volunteer pilots, flying general aviation airplanes at their own expense, have flown thousands of mercy missions. Now, I’m not talking about flying vaccines in the African bush to help out mankind (although I’d jump on that bandwagon in two seconds, if I could). Instead, every day, all kinds of domestic mercy missions are flown right here at home. In our own backyard.

Through dozens of organizations, general aviation pilots have saved baby sea turtles, prevented pound pups from being euthanized by transporting them to new owners in other states, mapped environmental changes, and more. But dearest to my heart, even though I’ve never worked with them (for reasons I’ll share in a moment), is Angel Flight. Our home state, New Mexico, is served by two overlapping “chapters” of the loose Angel Flight network. We have Angel Flight West and Angel Flight South Central, but they work together on a single mission: Helping sick people who have transportation issues get to where they need to go to receive medical treatment. Or, as their promotional refrigerator magnet more elegantly puts it: “Half the cure is getting there.”

That’s no joke.

Most people don’t know this, but transportation to medical treatment is a huge barrier right here in the US of A. Health insurance might cover chemo treatments, but many times won’t help get the patient to the cancer center. That’s where Angel Flight comes in, and the Angel Flight mission is dear to my heart because I have a secret: I’m not just an aviation journalist. I also work three days a week in a clinical role for a non-profit community health center in a very poor part of my state. I’ve seen first-hand how a lack of transportation impacts health. People die, right here in this great country, because they can’t “get there.” I once trained a young medical student who wanted to serve in the Third World. I told her she didn’t need a Passport. There are third-world countries right here in New Mexico, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama…

So you can see why I’d be eager to fly Angel flights. So how come I’m not doing it? Because, ironically, I myself am too “sick” to combine my love of flight, my family airplane, and my not inconsiderable knowledge of medicine. The various Angel Flights require their volunteer pilots to have a medical certificate, and I don’t have one, for two reasons.

First, the Plane Tales Plane is a Legacy Light Sport plane. She doesn’t require a medical to fly, just a pilot’s license and a valid driver’s license. And second, as I got older I developed one of those medical conditions that—while it’s still perfectly possible to get a medical with—ends up adding cost and time to the process. So bottom line, as it’s a hassle to get a medical and I don’t need one to fly the family plane, I simply haven’t bothered with it.

Still, while I can’t fly missions of mercy for Angel Flight, when I read about Angel Flight’s second annual fly-in in Albuquerque, it got me thinking that there might be some other role for me to play to help their cause. I thought maybe I could put my pen to work in their service. So that was my excuse for flying to the Big City. Yeah. According to my logbook, I flew a three-point-four-hour round trip to do what a 30-second email could have accomplished.

Or maybe not.

Because something unexpected happened at the airport.

While the chief meteorologist from the local Center was showing slides of microbursts, I sought out Angel Flight West executive director Josh Olson, who’d come out from California for the fly-in. I outlined my situation, and during our brief chat he told me that Angel Flight was actually good on pilots, and also good on publicity. But he bemoaned the fact that the real weak link was on the medical side, where the organization seemed to be having a hard time getting the word out to doctors about the availability of the service and the volunteer pilots.

Now, what’s odd about Josh’s comment is that I was in my secret identity mode. Past experience has taught me that while there are lots of pilots with all kinds of health challenges, it’s not something that we pilots will collectively admit to. Macho pilot “culture” prohibits it, and when it sometimes gets out that I don’t have the “Right Stuff” medically, I’ve found that I’m treated like a leper. The actual fact is that, because I have a chronic health condition that requires some attention, I’m actually healthier than I was back in the day when I had a top-of-the line 1st Class Medical Certificate. In fact, I bet that I’m in waaaaaaay better health than the guys who treat me like a leper. Still, I don’t enjoy being treated that way, so I’ve learned to keep a low profile and try to separate my two worlds. I never let on about my health condition or my healthcare profession in flying circles, and I don’t generally talk about flying in my health circles. So Josh had no clue that I work in medicine when he shared his problem with me.

I can only assume that an Angel whispered in his ear.

I debated internally for a moment, then the better angels of my nature took over and I “came out of the closet” about my connections in the world beyond the hangar, runway, and tower. My connections to hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies.

“Funny you should mention that, because being an aviation journalist is only part of what I do for a living…”