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The worst day of fishing beats the best day of work.
Years ago, I knew I found the right job when I was a co-pilot on a charter flight in a 15-seat Twin Otter for a day of fishing on an Alaskan beach. I remember thinking of that adage, and telling everyone that it was the best day of work and the best day of fishing.
How could it ever be possible to top that trip? Well, I think I just did it.
First, a little background is in order.
A year and a half ago, around the time I was learning to paraglide near New York City, I flew a few trips as a co-pilot to Rio. I took my camera and paid a guy $5 to take me up to the launch area at the Pedra Bonita ramp where hang gliders and paragliders launch at a rate that rivals the JFK airport in New York.
After chatting with a few pilots there, one of them asked me how much I weighed, suggesting that he had a glider and harness I could borrow. Having only flown from a 50-foot training hill, I politely declined. But I'll admit, I was tempted.
I spent the day filming multiple launches, some of which weren't so successful, and when I stood at the end of the paragliding ramp I set a goal to get a few hours under my glider so I could give this place a try.
Just this February I managed to rack up 20 hours of flying in Costa Rica. I figured it was time to bid the 34-hour Rio layover for some paragliding, but I wondered what would it look like to the passengers when I tried to go through security with what could be mistaken for a parachute on my back? I knew I would seem out of place, but in the end, it proved to be worth the hassle.
Starting at the last week of April and through the month of May, I found myself with five Rio trips in a row. I had heard that some crew members were able to leave bags at the hotel when they flew the trip often, and I planned to do the same with my 36-pound orange paraglider for the month.
As luck would have it, I knew the co-pilot, Mike from our days working together out of Boston to Paris and enjoying the bike tour there. Rio flights have one captain and two co-pilots for the required crew rest break on flights over eight hours.
Mike told me that the captain was a jovial kind of guy who, it turns out, had flown hang gliders in California when he was younger. I couldn't have asked for a better cockpit crew, and the flight attendants were friendly, if not curious about my layover plans with such a large backpack.
Going through security, I joked with a TSA agent that I just didn't like the pillows and blankets at the hotel.
In the cockpit, I was relieved to see that the bag fit perfectly in a recess next to the relief co-pilot seat in which I would occupy for takeoff and landing; I could see this wouldn't impact my co-workers in the least.
Safely at the hotel in Rio, arrangements were made to meet both the captain and Mike in the lobby after a two-hour nap at around noon. We picked up a cab to the paragliding and hang gliding landing zone at the end of São Conrado beach, and I paid the $30 for a one-month pass to fly there.
Passengers either love the airplane or hate it. And much of those feelings depend on where you're sitting. A perch up in first class offers one of the quietest cabins in the air. Conversely, finding yourself in the back row between the engines and across from the lav would only be appealing to the truest aviation geek who somehow enjoys the noise.
Compared to a Boeing, there are so many sounds, levers and quirky features in the cockpit of an MD-80 that I can only do justice by video. So on my last week of flying the airplane back in February, I decided to document a few of the features that have made me fall in love with the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 or the "Super 80" as we call it.
For all the quirks, as I mention in the video, it has an enviable safety record.
But let's face it; the reason I'll miss the MD-80 the most might have more to do with which seat I sat in. Bumping back from captain to co-pilot as these airplanes are retired means that I won't find myself taxiing around La Guardia or Chicago, or any place for that matter as the captain does all the taxiing.
And the co-pilots I flew with were the hardest working aviators at the company. I will absolutely miss them as some became good friends along the way.
You never know, with the flood of A319s, A321s and new Boeing 737-800 and -900s coming at my company, I could be back in the Super 80 left seat soon, or in one of those shiny new jets. Either way, I'm glad I had the opportunity to fly the airplane before it's gone.
[Photo credit: Kent Wien]
Related: "Captain on the MD-80? Why?" and "A Captain No More."
"Cockpit Chronicles" takes you along on some of Kent's trips as a
The process started in 2007 when we were allowed to use laptops to hold our company manuals. This meant we could leave three to four manuals at home that weighed about ten pounds. When the iPad came on the scene, we were allowed to use it as an alternative to the laptop. That left only our "Jepps," two to three large manuals that weighed even more than the company books, for us to lug around.
Some airlines went a different route, investing in a built-in laptop solution called a Class II EFB that included Jepp support. This 2009 cockpit video by Gadling shows how Virgin America deployed that solution.
Later, our company worked with Jeppesen and the FAA to offer an iPad that would be provided to every pilot and a RAM mount that stays in the aircraft. In addition, the company also provided us with a Hypermac backup battery that's capable of extending the life of the iPad for an additional 24 hours.
Since both pilots will be carrying an iPad, coupled with the extended batteries, the FAA feels this is as redundant as the regular manuals.
A few weeks ago we saw our first mounts in our MD-80, so I felt a video tour might explain how the setup works and just what it replaces.
So far American has approval for the 777, 737, MD-80 and is just awaiting approval for the 757/767 fleet. Hopefully, this will be just in time for my return to that airplane, as once you use this setup, you won't want to go back to the paper.
To get that approval, American had to have the iPad tested in a hypobaric chamber to simulate how the device would handle during a rapid decompression. They also had to arrange for mount testing with the FAA, which is ironic since our manuals weigh far more than the iPad and aren't secured in place. Many takeoffs have resulted in a book or two sliding off the side table and onto the floor.
Next up on the list are the reams of dot matrix printed paperwork we take with us on the flights that I covered in a previous video. Once that is accomplished, and weather is incorporated into the iPad, we can finally claim to be flying in the seemingly mythical "paperless cockpit" that has long been the goal since sometime just after the Wright Brothers took to the air and discovered how difficult it was to fold up their maps in the open cockpit.
[Photo/Video credit: Kent Wien]
Related: "Cockpit Chronicles: Paper Makes an Airplane Fly"
"Cockpit Chronicles" takes you along on some of Kent's trips as a
Discontinuing a takeoff roll or performing a missed approach – or even a mechanical at the gate – are all annoying for pilots. But nothing, perhaps short of being laid off, is more frustrating than upgrading to captain and then being bumped back to a co-pilot position.
And that's where I find myself today. After enjoying eleven months on the MD-80 in the left seat, the company has noticed that there are too many captains in New York on this airplane. So they're displacing eight of us back to our choice of co-pilot positions, and they've announced intentions to bump another group back in April and May.
Once I knew it was inevitable, I could give my displacement preference – a line of text saved in a computer system for just this kind of action by the company – some more thought. Initially, I had planned to fly the 777 as a co-pilot, an airplane that I flew briefly in 2005. But after looking over the various destinations, schedules and the seniority (or lack thereof) my choice came down to three:
In the end, LaGuardia, Reagan and Orange County, in Santa Ana, California, made the cut in her article. I couldn't really disagree with the choices. All three are short runways and each one has at least one unique departure or arrival procedure that requires a bit of piloting skill.
But do pilots worry, or get scared when flying into these places? I haven't seen any evidence to support that. Do we feel some pressure? Sure.
A recent LaGuardia landing is a good example. Since finishing my initial operating experience (IOE) as a new captain on the MD-80, I hadn't flown into LaGuardia for over a month. I managed to get two or three landings there with the instructor giving me the IOE training, but most of my subsequent trips had been out of Newark, another airport that's part of my home base.
Finally, after finishing a three-day trip with layovers in Cleveland and Albuquerque, I'd get my first landing back at the USS LaGuardia. We joke about its short length, but it really isn't much worse than the shortest runway in Boston, Chicago or San Diego. And as a co-pilot, I had flown into LGA many times. So why the pressure?
It might come as a surprise to some, but most pilots don't constantly think about the responsibility that comes with flying a planeload of passengers while they're flying. I suppose it's because, in a selfish way, a passenger's safety is no more important than my own, and this tends to be enough to ensure that the airplane and its occupants are flown in a safe way.
But I do have one recurring thought that goes through my mind during the more challenging times. Because of the hundreds of accident reports we've read that never fail to leave an impression, a little voice in my head can often be heard critiquing every decision or action.
And especially when things begin to go wrong on a flight, either mechanically, or because of weather or poor decision-making, that little voice in your head begins to craft your own accident report. And when you start hearing excerpts in your head, such as "captain elected to take off from the shorter, ice-covered runway to save time as the flight had been delayed" you tend to step back and re-think your decisions.
During my first LaGuardia landing as a captain, these type of thoughts were going through my head. Nothing was out of the ordinary – the weather was clear and while it was dark, the visibility was excellent.
But this time, it wasn't an NTSB accident report that I was hearing; it was a newspaper headline because that night I had royalty aboard the flight.
So if you can't get to Tarragona, Spain anytime soon, you may enjoy this production as a way to escape from your own job.
One pilot, flying in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy, had exactly this experience a few days ago and caught it on his camera.
Fortunately, even though the hang glider pilot's parachute failed to open, the flat spin was enough to let him down slow enough that he was able to survive the impact with the trees.
With the advent of GoPro cameras, many hang glider and paraglider pilots record their moments in the air. That has led to an abundance of scary, 'there I was – I nearly died' YouTube videos involving the sports.
While paragliding in Utah last week, building up my experience for a future "Cockpit Chronicles" article on the sport, I was initially surprised at how stressful it was to fly in a confined area scratching for lift with 20 other pilots. Occasionally, I had to give up the search and try for another flight later in the day when the traffic died down.
Paragliding enjoys a remarkably good safety record (a point that's subject to debate as you'll see in the comments below), so hopefully these videos won't discourage you from trying this purest form of flying.
Surprisingly, he has no plans to retire. "I don't consider this work. It's being able to do what you like and getting paid for it."
On Tuesday last week the folks at AA threw a party for Al, his friends and his co-workers arranged for a painting sufficient in size to make even Al blush, which covered the back wall of Hangar 10 at JFK.
The next day they arranged for a few fellow employees, along with representatives from the media, to join Al in what has to be the most fitting way to mark the occasion, a ride in an original AA DC-3 around Manhattan.
The DC-3, which is operated by the non-profit Flagship Detroit Foundation, is the oldest DC-3 still flying. It is an airplane that AA operated until 1947 - five years after Al started as a mechanic.
Members of the press gathered around and asked Al a few questions before we were led across the ramp for our chance to fly with Al in the vintage airliner.
After he had a slight misstep while boarding, someone offered to hold Al's cup of water for him. Handing it off, he joked, "You know what they say, If you can't hold your drink ... "
Soon after the 20 passengers found their seats on the plane, some remarked about the lack of air flowing through the cabin. Zane Lemon, the president of the Flagship Detroit Foundation, and our flight attendant for the trip, pointed out the gasper vents that would only supply cool air as we gained some airspeed, and the narrower seats from the time period.
"You have to remember, in the mid '30s, the average passenger weighed 136 pounds," he said.
"What was the average temperature?" someone quipped.
I was thrilled to be embarking on such a time-warp, even if the temperature was 95 degrees that day. A flight up the Hudson right by the Freedom Tower in a DC-3? Sign me up.
In July 2011 two girls borrowed a 4x4, filled it with camping gear and paragliders and drove up to the Highlands of Iceland.
They experienced a new side of their own country, found some extreme flying spots and quaint people, learned how to drive across rivers, up mountains and how to read maps.
4 weeks later, having killed the vehicle, they returned and made this film:
I can think of no better excuse to travel than to take up paragliding and meet other pilots around the world. In fact, I plan to do just that. Stay tuned.
Want to learn to really fly? If you live in the U.S. look up a paragliding school close to you. It's less expensive than you think.
The end result was a crash that was a bit of a let down.
Someone at the Discovery Channel recently had a similar idea, albeit on a more grand scale. Back in March, Kate Nixon, a producer working for Discovery, emailed me looking for a '727 guru.' She told me that they had purchased a Boeing 727 that they would be crashing in April for a scientific study. I'm sure the fact that it would make for some great T.V. was also part of the plan.
I explained that I was hardly a guru on the old three-engine Boeing, but that I might be able to put her in touch with someone. At the end of the exchange, I asked her what the "N" number was of the airplane to be crashed.
"Our aircraft is a 727-212 built in 1978 registration N293AS," She said.
A quick check revealed I had flown that exact airplane when working for ExpressOne International (pic), a passenger charter airline. In fact, my sister Kim had flown it as a flight attendant at Alaska Airlines (pic), the original operator of the doomed airplane.
Kate swore me to secrecy and explained that the planned crash that would be extensively filmed for an upcoming special. They were mounting cameras inside and outside to capture the event. I suggested testing some AmSafe airbag seat belts that I had recently seen while sitting on a 737 at a bulkhead seat.
Of course I wanted to share it with all my friends at those two companies. But I had to keep quiet, at least until now.
They apparently used a pilot and some form of radio control device operated by a chase plane to guide it during the final moments. The pilot jumped out (D. B. Cooper style?) before the final descent into the ground.
And of course, in this day of cell phone cameras everywhere, someone managed to capture the crash, and it looks like the results for the Discovery Channel are far from a let down: