Text (1) if you are alive; text (2) if you are dead

I open my logbook. A moth flies out. Well, at least someoneis flying.

Actually, thanks to my buddy Lisa losing her mind and buying an airplane, I’ve been in the air almost every week—except for those three weeks when Warbler was broken down. But flying with Lisa nowadays isn’t reallyflying. Her skill level has crossed that magic plateau every pilot-in-training experiences: One hour it looks hopeless, the next hour it all comes together, and she’s been flying like an ol’ pro ever since.

So my flying with Lisa isn’t so much flying, as riding in an airplane enjoying the view. But, still, it’s not a bad way to spend a morning. And the way the FAA regs are written, I still get to log the time. But what I’m lacking is some logging of flight in my soul, and there’s only one plane to do that in: Tessie.

But it’s been a bad year for poor Tess. We had that five-month engine rebuild debacle; then the prop repitch, re-repitch, re-re-repitch; then the weird oil leaks; then the leaky header tank; then the radio problems; then the stuck controls; then the broken exhaust; then the wing gas tank rebuild; then the problems with the elevator adjustment; and… Did I leave anything out? Probably. I try not to think about these things too much, and the aviation maintenance suicide prevention hot line at the NFFAis really getting tired of my calls.

After coming out of a six-week-long annual in June, Tess immediately began to overheat. Badly. There was much back and forth about possible causes, and in the end, I made the decision to let a different maintenance team take a crack at the issue. Mere days out of her annual I delivered Tess to a field on the Eastern Plains of New Mexico and then waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Of course, I’m not very good at waiting. And it’s not like I just sat idlily by. I called and emailed. And always there was an excuse for the delay. And always a promise of a new date. Finally, at the two month point the Eastern Planes guys admitted they had not even startedthe promised work.

I blew a gasket, got in a car (with wife and child in tow to bring the car back home), and went to go pick up the damned airplane. When I got there and tried to start Tess, she had no oil pressure. They pulled the top plugs and the oil filter and had me swing the prop with the mags off, using the starter. This should have pumped oil. It didn’t. It looked like the oil pump, hidden deep down inside the engine case, had died.

It was less than sixty hours old.

I’m sure you can imagine my state of mind.

As a last-ditch effort, they plugged the breather tube and applied compressed air to the oil system and we tried again. We struck oil. It was a gusher. They decided it was something called an “air lock” somewhere in the oil system, or maybe some debris. I don’t know about that, but afterward my mystery overheating disappeared.

I flew Tess home without incident. Then I flew her hard the next day, just trying to overheat her. She was as good as new. The old Tessie was back, and both she and I were thirsty for adventure.

We didn’t have long to wait.

Because that very same afternoon—as I sat in the back seat of Deb’s Jeep as the nuclear family drove to Albuquerque to fetch Grandma Jean, who was flying home commercially after a visit to sister number two and family in Colorado—I was checking my email. There was a ton of chatter on the Sport Air Racing League discussion board about the upcoming weekend’s race. I guess I must have been grumbling out loud about missing out on the action because Deb turned her head and said: “Go.”

I grumbled there wasn’t time. I’d have to leave in 12 hours.

“Go,” said Debbie.

I’d have to do laundry, and pack, and flight plan, and…

“Go, already,” said Debbie.

So I did. After crazy-fast late-night prep, Lisa and I are now south of Santa Fe with five hundred miles to go, enjoying a smooth early morning ride, and watching the temperature gauges like hawks, when I get a text on my Apple watch.

It says: “Are you dead?”

Well, that wasn’t quite what it said. It really said: “Leidos Flt Svc Advisory–N3967H–TRACK LOST@241252–If not in distress–Contact Flt Svcs.”

Which is pretty much the same thing as, “Are you dead?”

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But it’s not the type of text you expect to get in an airplane. At least I didn’t expect it, nor had I ever seen anything like it before. Now, for quick background on this first-time-for-me text, you need to know that after writing an article on flight plans, I got inspired and started using the modern and super-easy flight plan filing system where everything is done by computer and smart phone, a methodology which ideally suits my antisocial personality (and least when it comes to talking to authority). And a totally new-for-me option is to link my flight plan and my Spot GPS tracker. If the tracker stops tracking—i.e. moving—then rescue efforts are started right away, rather than waiting until after you’re overdue and presumed missing en route.

Apparently, our tracker had stopped tracking.

We dug the tracker out of the back, and sure enough, it had lost the signal. We re-booted it. No joy. The batteries were too low. To flight service we were flying along just fine one minute, and the next we had vanished. Needless to say, we needed to check in and let them know notto launch search and rescue.

But I’ve gotten so used to dealing with flight service via text message, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to contact them using something as old fashioned as a radio. I mean, seriously, I can open and close my flight plans by texting single letters and numbers to them. Why on earth couldn’t they have just texted: TRACK LOST, text (1) if you are OK, text (2) if you need help?

But that wasn’t an option. In my mind’s eye I could see the slide in my Rusty Pilots PowerPoint presentation that shows the universal frequency for flight service. But my mind’s eye apparently needs bifocals; as I couldn’t focus on the long—for me—unused frequency.

“You have the plane,” I told Lisa.

She quickly grabbed the controls, “I have the plane.”

I whipped out my phone (thankfully we were near civilization and I had three bars). I used Google to look up the frequency for Flight Service:122.2. You’d think I could remember a number like that) and proceeded to make my usual fool of myself on the radio. “Uh… hello? Flight service, are you there? Yes, we’re fine. Umm.. thanks for asking. How are you? Oh, right, I’m the pane you’re worried about. I got your text. We’re not dead. It’s just the battery that went dead. Don’t call out the guard or anything. Err…Thanks again. Uh… have a nice day.”

OK, it wasn’t quite that bad, but the exchange felt awkward to me, and less professional than I envision myself. Still, they were happy to know we were still in the air, and wished us a good flight.

And the rest of it was. The plane behaved. The weather behaved. Not only were we alive, but I felt alive again.

 

For the love of “steam gauges”

“But what I don’t understand,” said Lisa, her face earnest and serious, “is where the steam that runs these things comes from.”

It was one of those speed bump moments that sometimes happens in conversations.

We’d been talking avionics, which is a fancy word for instruments that go in airplanes. Increasingly, over the last few years, most modern avionics are computer screens called “glass” or “glass cockpits” in the flying world; while the older traditional round-dial flight instruments are now universally called “steam gauges.”

I have no idea where the label “steam gauge” came from, but I suspect it started out as a slur perpetrated by glass cockpit salesmen that eventually went mainstream—losing its negative connotation in favor of a nostalgic fondness. But Lisa, a razor-sharp scientist by education and profession, tends to take things literally, and assumed it was a functional label. I could almost see her doing a mental inventory of her new plane, confused about where the water tank for the steam gauges could possibly be hiding, and how often she should refill it.

Of course, old-school flight instruments do not, in fact, run on steam. They run on either air pressure or electricity, depending on the model and type of instrument. I suppose that if the label “steam gauge” wasn’t a conspiracy of the glass cockpit crowd, maybe the term came about because, for some, all those wonderful round gauges reminded them more of the cab of an old-fashioned steam engine than that of a modern flying machine.

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But I’m here to defend the airplane steam gauge, because in reality, it’s anything but old fashioned. Rather, the steam gauge is a modern marvel. Now, if you’re a lover of high-res color moving screens, just hear me out, because a traditional flight instrument is an absolute miracle of graphical presentation that you might not have appreciated, one unrivalled in human history, and not deserving the lowly title that it’s now saddled with.

Think about it. A true steam gauge, on a boiler in a basement in a Third World country somewhere, is nothing more than a single needle that tells you how close the steam tank is to blowing its lid. Aircraft steam gauges, on the other hand, can tell us how our planes are orientated within a three-dimensional environment; if we are on course or off; and can even guide us to fog-shrouded runways—keeping us correctly lined up on the runway while descending safely through space without hitting anything on the ground.

Try that with a steam gauge out of a Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 locomotive.

And there’s more. Not only do aircraft steam gauges display an amazing range of data, they do so in a way that allows for a six-second scan, literally taking six seconds to take in all the various instruments to assure that all is well with the flight. How is that even possible? Because aircraft-quality steam gauges are actually carefully engineered hieroglyphic interfaces.

Now wait a minute, you say. Aren’t hieroglyphics those funky symbols in the Pharos’s tomb? The ones no one can read?! Well, yes and no. It’s true that the meaning of some ancient hieroglyphics is lost to time, giving the word hieroglypha quasi-enigmatic connotation, but in its purest form, a hieroglyphic system of writing uses symbols to form words and concepts. In other words, picture writing. And we all know that a picture tells a thousand words, making it the fastest way to communicate a lot of data. After all, we humans are visual creatures.

Here, let me give you an example of another great steam gauge, one that pre-dates the world of aviation, to illustrate what I’m talking about. If you were born before 1972, you were probably raised with the granddaddy of all hieroglyphic instruments: The wrist watch. A traditional wrist watch (not the pilot type with all sorts of unnecessary dials to make us look smarter than we are) has one dial and two hands. A scale on the dial shows half the day, twelve hours. Overlaid on that scale is a second scale that shows sixty minutes. One of the two hands of the watch indicates where we are in hours during the day by pointing to the hour scale, and the other hand indicates how far through that hour we are by pointing to the minute scale. A fancy model ups the ante with a third hand for tracking seconds.

It sounds mind-numbingly complex when laid out in words, but in action it brilliantly does what the best graphical interfaces do: It paints a picture. Quickly. Once you learn its language, you can “read” it without thought. At a mere glance, you “know” what time it is. On the other hand, if you look at a digital watch that says 3:59 p.m., you have to think.

And thinking takes time. Who has time for that?

Especially in an airplane.

That’s one of the things I love about airplane steam gauges. The instruments collectivity paint a picture of my airplane in the sky. Without needing to think about it, I know, as if I were glancing at my watch, that all is well—or that something isn’t right. That’s a pretty sophisticated interface. One that, like the wrist watch, thrives best on simplicity.

Airplane steam gauges keep it simple. They are visual Haiku.

Of course, glass instruments have graphics, too, but there’s no Haiku to be found there. It’s more like an epic poem. They display a ton of information, and for me anyway, that’s part of their problem. I have a hard time seeing the trees for the forest, or the forest for the trees. All that brilliant color and fancy graphics just doesn’t click in my brain the way a good set of steam gauges do. But maybe that’s just my age. For digital natives, I’m sure it’s different.

Another thing I like about steam gauges, and this would hardly be a reason for choosing them, is that I think they look better on the ground. Yeah, I know that’s not where they matter, but when walking around the ramp, poking my nose up against the windows to look into various cockpits, steam gauges give a parked airplane a business-like look. Sure, the tires are flat on that old Cherokee chained to the cracked and weed-infested far end of the ramp. Yeah, its paint is worn, fading, and peeling; and there’s a bird’s nest in the engine cowl—but the cockpit is alive with possibilities. Compare that to the shiny new Cirrus over by the fuel pump. Powered off, its blank cockpit looks like an abandoned black and white television set in the back of the Salvation Army store. Glass makes planes seem dead on the ground.

In a similar fashion, I like climbing into a cockpit that looks ready to go before my finger strokes the master switch.

But neither my fondness for the steam gauge as a concept, nor my joy in sliding into a cockpit that looks ready to go, had any bearing on my recent decisionto remove the several pieces of glass we had installed and replace them with (horrors!) steam gauges.

Nope. It was completely pragmatic. Our plane, Tessie, is a flying greenhouse. She has glass (the kind you look through, not the modern instrument kind) in front. Glass to the right. Glass to the left. Glass above. Glass behind. It’s a lovely bubble of view. It also doesn’t have even an inch of shade. Nor does our panel have a sun shade, or room for one.

The result? Glare. Epic glare. The only time I can read a glass panel display is when the plane is in the hangar. Oh. Right. I can’t read it there either, because the plane isn’t running. This was never a problem with the steam gauges of old. They have glass faces, but something about the material used in them resists glare, while something about the material used in modern glass cockpit displays seems to attract glare the way a magnet attracts iron filings.

So I’m not a luddite. And while I’m an aficionado of the classics, that had no bearing on my decision. I just want to be able to read the story my airplane is telling me. And for this plane, for this pilot, steam gauges are the only way to go

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go refill the water tank.

 

Break out the oxygen

Damn. The ground looks so far away. “This crazy altitude is going to give me a nosebleed,” I tell Rio.

Rio, now a somewhat intolerant teen, rolls his eyes, “It’s not that bad, Dad.”

Rio’s in the left seat. I sit up straighter in my seat to see out over his wing at the airport, far, far, far below. “Break out the oxygen,” I insist.

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“We don’t have oxygen, Dad. Besides, it’s only two hundred feet higher.”

Which, I know, means we’re 5,791 feet above sea level. The FAA doesn’t require pilots to use oxygen until we top 12,500 feet, and then only if we stay up there for more than half an hour. It’s at 14,000 feet that the pilot must don the mask no matter what. I’m not sure what Tessie’s service ceiling is, but I’m guessing we couldn’t get to 14,000 feet even if we filled her up with helium and lashed her to a weather balloon.

Still. The airport looks too small. In my mind I chant:I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-Am. I do not like this new pattern altitude. I would not like it here or there. I would not like it anywhere.

After I’ve been flying a landing pattern altitude of 800 feet above the ground for thirty-seven years, the powers-that-be have gone and raised it to 1,000 feet. It actually isn’t as capricious as it sounds. For years about half of the non-towered airports out there have used my beloved 800 feet, while the other half have been using 1,000 feet. As there’s no way with a quick glance at the chart to know which an airport is using, it’s led to a dangerous mix of aircraft flying at different altitudes in the pattern at some busy airports. So really, they had to standardize it for safety.

I just wish they’d chosen 800 feet.

But they didn’t. And now I have to learn to land all over again. As do Rio and Lisa, who were just beginning to master buttery smooth landings from 800 feet. Now, it seems that no matter how we change our power settings, we still come in 200 feet high.

Of course, the new pattern altitude isn’t actually law. It’s a highly recommended best practice recommended by what’s called an Advisory Circular. Out here on our own we could just keep doing whatever the hell we want to do, and no one would be the wiser.

But that wouldn’t be right.

It is for the best, I can see that. Plus when we travel we really need to be on the same page as everyone else. We—I—just need to buckle down and learn how to do this.

But, damn, I know it’s only 200 feet higher, but everything looks so much smaller, so far below. “Let’s try eighteen hundred RPM this time,” I tell Rio as we come abeam the numbers and need to start our descent

Then I add, “And tomorrow I’m bringing your grandmother’s oxygen tank.”