October 20, 2014


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Birds are Beautiful, But ...

Written by Captain Ed in 2009:


There is a place I know of where our feathered friends are encouraged to gather in large quantities. They are provided for and coddled in every way imaginable. There is even a “temple” of sorts built there to their glory. It goes by the name of “Nature Center”, but a few minutes inside is all it takes to convince even the casually observant that it is a place of worship to glorify all things “natural” particularly those sporting feathers.

So, where is this paradise for our fellow citizens of the aviary sort? Why right where you would expect it to be, immediately under the approach path to one of our major airports.

Someone obviously decided long ago that it would be a good idea to keep all things that fly sort of grouped together so that they will feel better about themselves. Now, it may be noted that this someone (apparently someone of great importance to be able to make such an idea stick) missed a few pertinent facts about the differences between birds and airplanes; didn’t consider that one may not be good for the health of the other.

You folks flying the line out there know where this bird Mecca is. You are nodding your heads and smiling at the thought of how many times you have ducked behind the instrument panel on short final because of the sudden appearance of Daffey and his buddies merrily flapping down the ILS approach.

The sad thing is you are not all thinking of the same place. There is more than one of them.

The airport I have in mind is identifiable by the fact that the ATIS always has a notation I find most amusing and not really very helpful. “Caution, migratory water fowl in the vicinity of the airport,” is always there in the jumble of information pouring forth from the electronic wealth of timely knowledge.

I find this caution amusing for several reasons: One, do I really care that the birds I might encounter are migratory? Are they carrying little suitcases with their beachwear so that when I hit them I can expect to get sunscreen all over the windshield? The ATIS at most airports is already far too long, full of information I don’t need in a format that is sometimes barely decipherable due to abbreviations (Who decided to use BR to mean mist?). Why then do we need to spell out this business about birds on their way to Florida? Why not jus say, “Birds?”

Secondly, are they really migratory? This caution runs all year long. It’s late February, about ten degrees below zero out. I pull up the ATIS and learn that, lo and behold, the “migratory water fowl” are still in the vicinity. Should I assume these are the really stupid ones who got their calendars backwards? Are they still on their way to Florida, but will get there just in time for the temps to peak at about 105F?

Thirdly, what am I to do with this info? I don’t know about you guys, but I’m always cautious of birds at low altitudes whether I’m told about their family history and travel plans or not. And there is pitifully little I can do about them. Common sense would dictate that IF you see them, turn away and don’t try to go under them (they climb at about the rate of a fully loaded Metroliner on a hot day, so when frightened, they dive).

That’s about it. That’s all you can do.

So, while a certain element of our society continues to fight for the rights of our feathered friends to live blissfully in protected havens as close as possible to major airports, be prepared to duck behind the instrument panel from time to time.


Captain Ed, Author of "Your Captain Speaking"
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October 13, 2014


About a total electrical failure at night and rookie mistakes ...

Written by Mike Strasser about his early career in flying many moons ago:


When I was a young lad and still working on building hours for my first Part 135 job, I frequently rented one of the little Cessna 152’s the company had and took it out on night flights after work. The air was smooth, and I had to build cross country flight time as well as night flight time. It didn’t matter if those hours were in a helicopter or an airplane so I went the cheaper route since I still had no money. I worked out a deal so I could get the flight hours as cheap as possible utilizing my status as an employee and arguing that I would be working as a charter pilot for the company one day.

That night I had planned to fly to Santa Barbara for a touch-and-go and call it a night. I had worked all day but wanted to build hours as fast as I could to make it a step closer to the ultimate goal of getting paid to fly helicopters.

“Cessna XXX is taking the active 26, right turn out” would be the last thing I was transmitting that night. The take off was smooth and I was looking forward to a peaceful flight along the coast and the great of experience of landing at the Santa Barbara airport at night when it was all lit up with all the colorful runway and taxiway lights.

I was passing Oxnard when I reached down to turn off my landing light. The plane had a landing light and a tax light and when I reached down I turned on the taxi light instead of turning off the landing light. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal because the plane is designed to run both lights at the same time and I would just go “Oh, wait! That’s the wrong switch!” and fix it. But not this time.

Something overloaded or shorted out, I am not sure, but when I turned on the taxi light everything went dark. I didn’t just pop a circuit breaker or lost one system, I lost everything that had to do with electricity.

“Self” I thought to myself, “it’s time to go back to Camarillo and land.” No big deal, right?! It is required for a pilot to have a flashlight when he or she goes on a night flight. It always made sense to bring one but suddenly it did even more so. I turned on my little flashlight shined it on my instruments which also went dark and sat on it to keep it in place. I was surprisingly calm as turned back towards the airport. The engine was still running and all the controls were still responding since the little Cessna does not have a “fly-by-wire” system installed. Thank god for the good old control cables, bellcranks and push-pull rods!

The Camarillo airport is not staffed at night and pilots use a “common traffic frequency” to announce their position when they come in for landing. As long as everybody is talking and stating their intentions, it’s a pretty safe deal since there are not that many planes in the sky during night anyways. Another pretty neat system a lot of airports have is that the pilot can turn on the runway lights from the air by clicking his transmit-button 7 times in a row. This saves the airport money as the lights turn off again after 5 minutes or so until the next plane comes in and the pilot clicks the lights.

As I got closer it started dawning on me that I would neither be able to hear the other airplanes in the sky nor be able to turn the lights on since my radio wasn’t working. No juice, no radios, which also means no “clicking”.

Well, maybe the lights are still on” I thought but it soon became apparent that they weren’t. “Ok, I know where the airport is. Why don’t I just do a low pass and see if I can see anything” I started curving in for a low pass and instinctively reached for the landing light switch which of course did nothing anymore. I was kind of laughing at myself for even trying this maneuver and thinking I had landing lights since nothing else was working on the airplane. It was pitch black dark out there and I could not make out the runway. All I saw was a big black hole. The moon wasn’t out and  I never even saw the runway marking shimmer white in the moonlight. I departed the airport again since I didn’t want to be in the way in case another airplane was coming in. Obviously there were no other planes around or somebody would have tried to turn the lights on at the airport but I was worried of airplane just passing by since they wouldn't be able to see me. I was pretty sure I had no outside lights either. I was a ghost plane.

My heart rate was now going up a little since my first two plans didn’t work out as I had planned. What can I try next? I am out here in the dark of the night without having a way of telling anybody. In flight school we learned all those great procedures on what to do when your radio goes out. You can communicate with the tower with light signals which is pretty neat. Or when you landing light breaks, or when your alternator goes out, and so on. But nobody ever mentioned what to do with a complete back-out at night and the tower people are off.

I looked at my fuel gage and stuck the flashlight into my mouth to do few calculations. I didn't really want to fly all the way to Santa Barbara but over there I had a higher chance of any runway lights being on than where I currently was. My gauge was showing that I had enough fuel to stay in the air for another two hours. But what was the fuel gauge really indicating? After all I probably had no power going to it either. But I knew when I took off and what I had on board then so I decided to “hang out” close to the Camarillo airport for a while to see if somebody else was coming in to land and turn the lights on for me. Of course nobody came for a whole half hour. I figured if nobody would show up in the next couple of minutes I would need to fly to Santa Barbara and I wanted to leave myself enough fuel in case I ran into a problem over there.

I was coming up to a point of no return where I had to go to SBA and once I made the decision to go, there would not be enough fuel left to go anywhere else when I get there. This did make me a little nervous all of a sudden and I felt very alone up there in the dark.

I was about to turn and head to SBA when I spotted a plane on the horizon. “This HAS to work” I told myself and made the decision to hang out a few more minutes. And to my relief the airplane was headed right for Camarillo. Now it was on! I had to get myself right behind that plane because I did not want those lights to turn off on me again, especially not when I was on short final. The lights came on and the plane lined up for the runway. I was hauling ass, giving my little Cessna everything she’s got to get right behind the other airplane. When I was circling and waiting I picked a spot not too close to the airport and outside the traffic pattern to avoid running into other airplanes and where I knew nobody would come passing through. It was right over the city. Since my plane was all darkened out nobody could call in my N-number anyways, right?! It was a good plan in my mind but I was beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have just picked something closer. The other plane was faster than me but I made it right on it’s tail by cutting my downwind and base leg short and I touched down only seconds right behind them. Safe at last!

I even taxied right behind the plane and it turned out it was a plane from the same flight school and I knew the pilots. They shut down their engines at the tie down area and saw me for the first time parking right next to them. “Where in the hell did you come from?” Greg asked me as we climbed out of our airplanes. They had no idea I was right on their tail the whole time.

I told him the story and he pointed out that I seemed more pissed off about my night cross country not going as planned than freaked out about what just happened. It was interesting because it never hit me how bad this could have turned out if I panicked or nobody came in for a landing until after I was safely on the ground. I parked the airplane and walked away getting a good night sleep even. It didn’t really affect me until the next day when I told the story and everybody responded with an “Oh my god! What did you end up doing? Are you ok?”

Maybe it was a little dicey after all but it worked out ok for me. Another lesson learned I guess. I was just glad I kept my cool the whole time without even thinking about it.


Mike Strasser

Co-Creator of Chicken Wings Comics

October 13, 2014


A little Story about Back Country Air Strips …

(from an article published in "Flyways Magazine")

The summer 2003 was a big fire season for everybody. A lot of heavy air tankers were still shut down due to the two fatal mid-air break-ups the previous year, so helicopters were pretty much the name of the game.

I was flying an AS350 B3 AStar for Bridgeport Helitack that year. This crew is what they call in the fire industry an “Interagency Helicopter Rappel Crew”, which means we have very well trained aerial firefighters on board who can rappel from the helicopter close to a fire in case I can’t land the helicopter at a reasonable distance to where we need to work.

It was this rappel capability that landed us on the “Hot Creek Fire” which was raging through the Boise National Forest an hour north of Boise, Idaho in July that year. Our primary mission was to rappel into tactical locations in the forest and cut out helispots for other helicopters to land and bring in firefighting crews and supplies. When we got there, the fire was “sleeping” after a big push it made the day before due to a small amount of rain. Two little townships Idaho City and Atlanta, ID were threatened by the, at the time, approximately 20.000 acre monster. Cabins and Campsites in the area had already been evacuated at the time.

I noticed right away that there was no place to land anywhere. The reason I remember this so vividly is because we spend a lot of time fighting fires in Nevada and though there isn’t much in this state, there are plenty of places to land. It’s a shocker to me every time I fly up to Idaho or Montana. While flying a helicopter, you always look for places to go in case something goes wrong, but here were nothing but trees. Lots and lots of tall trees… (Which explains the term “National Forest” I guess)

We landed at a small airstrip called in Idaho City (U98) which was converted to a helicopter base by the Forest Service with five or more ships already on scene and heavily involved in the firefighting effort. Two or three days later we moved the helibase to another airstrip close to Atlanta (55H) because the fire had taken a different direction and was now threatening the houses there.

I have to say, these back country airstrips are pretty rugged and I really admire my fixed wing colleagues who are skilled (or crazy?) enough to land at these strips. They had two strips in Atlanta, one of them seemed to be a private strip belonging to some lodge, and I have to say that even though I was flying a helicopter, I still had to carefully plan my approach and landing going in there. I can only imagine what my “stuck wing” friends do. I was fortunate enough to meet some of these guys in Salmon, Idaho at a fire later in the season and watch them work. If something goes wrong in a helicopter out there we are prepared to take the aircraft into the trees, hopefully straight down and with zero forward airspeed, but for these guys, the occasional back country strip seems to be their only option.

The fire made three more big pushes the following week until a rain storm finally helped us out,

…or so we thought. After the fire had burned all the vegetation, the rain triggered numerous huge mudslides thundering down the mountain which took out the only decent road to our camp and the town ship of Atlanta. We were more or less cut off from civilization. There was only one small old logging road winding its way through the backcountry but it seemed too small to get any big fuel trucks or other heavy fire equipment in or out of our base.

We were told it will take months to repair the damaged road. I have seen some good fires before in my career but this one had me feel like I was on the show “Survivor”. No phones, TV, air-condition, not even sodas, but bugs and bears instead. Although we’re out in the boonies often it felt differently being cut-off with roads washed out. The absence of cameras following me around brought me back to reality though realizing I will not be on television this time.

After a couple more days the helicopters started running out of fuel so we made the decision to refuel at another back country airstrip called Weatherby (52U) since it was down river from the mudslide and fuel trucks could get there. We had to bring on additional fuel trucks since most of ours were trapped. My crew was lucky since the truck of our sister ship had been in Boise getting fuel at the time of the mudslides and could now give us fuel until my truck would meet up with them later to pay them back.

I never found out how they got all the big trucks and equipment out of there after I left but my mechanic told me they did some improvements to the old logging road and with a one way system in place they could get a certain number of vehicles in or out of this place every day. I did have to wait a whole day for him in Boise after we got released from the fire.

Without utilizing these back country air strips, the historic town of Idaho City (an old gold mining town built between 1862 and 1863) and the little township of Atlanta could have been lost forever. I believe most of these strips are owned by the forest service so they might not be threatened to be shut down, but I was merely trying to tell a true story of what happened to me and what could happen in the future. Just something to keep in mind the next time somebody feels the need to close an airstrip down no matter where they are. They were put in for a reason. Let’s leave them where they are. It’s my personal humble opinion that the environmental impact is minimal and definitely far less than the common campsite.