Sunday, May 18, 2008

Of course we met at the airport, part 2.

I was flying cargo in a Beech 58 Baron out of Goderich when Lisa and I met 8 years ago. I got up the courage to ask her if she wanted to go for a plane ride, and she accepted...

I picked up the cargo boxes from the factory, then drove to the airport and loaded them into the nose of my beloved Baron. I saw Lisa in the main terminal, so after I was done loading the boxes, I casually and nonchalantly walked over to her. I had my lines all picked out, and the world was about to witness how smooth and suave I could be.

"Sooo, I see you are hanging around the airport. I guess you couldn't stay away from me eh? Well, the weather is perfect so if you still want to come with me to Hamilton, we can go whenever you are ready."

"First of all, I work at the airport, remember? That's why I'm here - I'm not just waiting around for you. In fact, I'm not actually off for another half-hour. But if you want to wait for me, I would like to go for a flight."

My face burned as hot as a thousand suns, but I kept it together.

"Umm, sure. A half-hour won't hurt. I umm have to do some flight planning anyway and stuff and other things that will take precisely a half-hour also, so umm yeah, I will get back to finishing off those things and then meet you at the plane in half an hour. 'Cause I have lots of important flying things to get ready. Righty-o, see you in 30 minutes. Then we'll go flying. To Hamilton. In 30 minutes. Half an hour."

She raised an eyebrow and smiled a little. I bit my tongue so I'd stop talking, then slowly walked away like I had something to do. Like I said, smooth and suave.

Time passed, up to and including the 30 minutes I had so eloquently discussed.

Lisa walked over to the plane.

"Hi Sully, I'm ready to go now. Hey, don't you wear a uniform?"

I looked at her, looking at my sandals and shorts and Skinny Puppy t-shirt.

"Umm, I fly cargo mostly. The uniform isn't important. I hate wearing a tie anyway."

"Pilot uniforms are hot."

"I will wear one from now on, even when I'm not flying"

She laughed, and I fell further in love.

Now a couple of minor things to note: This was May 2000, and things at small airports were considerably more relaxed than they are now. The main runway in Goderich is runway 13/31, and normally we use runway 31 for takeoff and landing. At the end of runway 31 is a steep cliff, followed by Lake Huron. My boss worked in a building right on the shoreline, and frequently on departure I would keep the plane low, then skim out over the water and parallel the shoreline until I streaked past the boss's office at a great rate of speed. Then I would pull up, hang a left and head toward Hamilton. It took maybe 20 extra seconds, my boss enjoyed it, and it was hella fun.

I gave Lisa the safety briefing, including the part "If the door pops open right as we take off, that's pretty much normal in a Baron. There's no danger, and we'll just come back around and land." Now that I think about it, maybe that's not as confidence-inspiring as I meant it to be.

I told Lisa that the Baron is fairly overpowered for a light piston twin, and that the plane handled like a sports car. I did a static runup on the runway, then let go of the brakes and pulled the trigger. PAA launched forward like a greyhound (the dog, not the bus) and we were airborne in a few seconds, skimming out over Lake Huron, then hanging a left and flying across from the main beach in Goderich, out over the water enough to make it legal. I looked over at Lisa. She was waving at the people on the beach, and seemed to be enjoying herself.

The plane was light and we accelerated to 180 knots very quickly, so I decided to show off a little more. Once we were done the tour of the beach, I pulled back to maybe a 30-degree climb, and we hauled ass skyward. We climbed a thousand feet in a few seconds, and then I decided to show Lisa the zero-G trick, so I pushed forward on the controls. As the nose fell below the horizon, we were weightless for a few seconds. Lisa laughed as my lucky clearance-writing pen floated in midair between us. I heard a muffled clunk up in the nose, or maybe it was just a random airplane noise. After a few seconds of weightlessness I had to pull the nose up again, and I started to fly toward Hamilton like a normal pilot might.

On the way there I showed Lisa the controls and instruments, and pointed out Stratford and Kitchener and Toronto in the distance as we got closer and closer to Hamilton.

"So when we land, we go to the UPS ramp. We are by far the smallest airplane that hauls cargo there, which is kind of cool because when it rains I can actually park under the wings of the 757's at the UPS ramp and stay dry."

"Hmm. Most of the pilots I have met say bigger is better. And here you are, saying that small can be good too. What am I going to do with you, Mr. Sully."

I tried not to lose control of the airplane, and actually had a decent landing. We taxiied over to UPS and hopped out. I introduced her to the glassy-eyed ramp rats, and went to the nose of the plane to get the boxes out.

"Okay, Lisa, I'll just be a few seconds unloading, then we can taxi over to the Tim Horton's at the other end of the field, grab a couple of iced cappucinos and blast off for home. Just as soon as I get the nose door open. Hmm, it's sticking a little."

In fact, the nose cargo door was completely jammed. When I had shown off to Lisa after takeoff and done the zero-g trick, the cargo in the nose had also become weightless, which enabled it shift inside the nose in such a way as to settle on top of the inner latches, preventing them from snapping open.

Our nightly cargo was stuck inside the plane and we had no way to get it out.

The ramp rats tried to slide thin metal strips between the latches to pop them open, but nothing would work. They even called over a 757 mechanic to come take a look. He fiddled with it for a long while, then said "It's screwed. Go home." and walked away.

Shame-faced, I told the ramp rats that we would head back to Goderich to get the nose compartment fixed "The locks must be stuck or something. The mechanic at our home base should have told me they were sticking!" I faked outrage.

Of course by then it would be too late for my plane's cargo to get on the 757's that would take it all across the world, meaning the boxes would sit at the Goderich airport overnight and come on the following night's cargo run. Not a desirable outcome for the customers who paid extra to have their boxes flown to Hamilton to make tonight's 757 flights.

Anyway, Lisa and I loaded back up into the plane and departed back to Goderich, with our precious cargo still in G-PAA's nose It was almost dusk and the skies were clear, so we watched the sunset turn the sky red and gold.

I waited a few minutes before I confessed to her "When I did the weightless thing the cargo shifted and..." She had a good laugh, which then turned to worry.

"Are you going to get fired?"
"I don't think so. I'm probably going to get yelled at for showing off though"
" were showing off for me?"
"Yes. Yes I was. I wanted you to think I was dazzling and amazing and now I feel like a complete tool"
"Well I thought the zero-g thing was pretty cool. But you don't have to try to impress me, I already like you"

As we flew home in silence we watched the moon and stars move in the heavens, then a brief flash of a meteor as it burned across the horizon, winking out as the ball of flame became a cinder.

"Quick! Make a wish!"
"I already did"

Her hand reached over to mine.

The next day, I got a phone call from our mechanic. It took him 6 hours to remove the main nosecone and then de-rivet one of the latches so he could pop the nose cargo compartment open. "Did you bring a girl with you last night? That's the only thing I can think of that would cause you to do something that stupid." Yes, he actually said that. He then continued to chew my ass for quite a while.

And I would do it all over again in a millisecond.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

This King Air has a particularly nasty gear failure, with only the nosegear being available. The story goes that the wheels came off the King Air when it went to land the first time, but I have no details. If you watch the video to the end, there is a quick shot of a piece of landing gear laying on the runway, but no back-story.

I thought the guy was gonna lose it, but it turns out pretty well.

"Raw video,May 06/08:The wheels came off the plane when the pilot tried to land at Dunn Airpark in Titusville,Florida. He was able to land the plane on a grassy landing strip on a second attempt.

One other person was on board. They were both reportedly okay."

Saturday, May 03, 2008

One more post then I'll stop.

It made me happy and I wanted to share.

We have gone carbon-neutral. From now on, every hour we fly, we pay TerraPass to offset our carbon emissions. Even in our light jet, 2 hours of operation generates the same amount of C02 as a year's worth of running my Honda Civic Hybrid, so I wanted to do something about that.

Our parent company is in the business of alternate power generation, and it made sense to keep in line with that corporate culture, as well as making me feel a little less ashamed of the state I'll be leaving the planet in for my children and grandchildren.

This system isn't perfect, and I understand that. In a perfect world we would be able to use non-polluting fuel, and our carbon emissions would be zero. That option is not available to us currently, and until it is, this is one of the things we can do.

I would be interested in listening to what you think we could do in addition to our carbon offsets - I am always on the lookout for ways to minimize our environmental impact.

I am not forgetting about what we are doing to the environment, which is why we initiated carbon offsets. I am still conscious that it is a bit of a shell game - it's not like the carbon is being captured or anything, but we are paying for others to reduce their CO2 emissions while we wait for the technology to become available to actually reduce ours.

We hope to do more in the future, but I think this is a decent start. If you fly, I encourage you to research carbon offsets. The cost is a lot lower than you might think - through TerraPass, our cost works out to about $17/hour for 160 gallons/hour of Jet-A. A small price to pay, really.
Aight, this is my third post for today.

A few weeks ago, I slept under a Vampire's wing. And it was awesome!

I did a trip from Toronto to Hamilton (distance maybe 40 miles), taking some cub scouts and their parents to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at the Hamilton airport. For a sleepover!

The museum has a great program called "Night Operations" where they allow various groups to bring sleeping bags and sleep under the wings of warbirds.

On the way to Hamilton, Toronto ATC let us circle the CN Tower at only a few thousand feet, and the kids in the back loved it. Except for the one kid who barfed during the 12 minute flight, but what can you do - kids barf over just about everything.

Anyhoo, we landed in Hamilton and headed over to the museum. The client offered a hotel room for me, but there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to watch 200 kids run amok all night in the museum, so I packed my sleeping bag and joined the group.

The staff at the museum were absolutely excellent - they did a presentation on the basics of flight, then gave the kids little foam gliders to toss about the main museum hangar.

Picture a couple of hundred little kids and parents running around with foam gliders, flinging them with glee. Absolutely hilarious.

After what seemed like just a few minutes it was time for pizza, then bed.

Notice how I didn't say "sleep", as that was impossible after the kids were so wired up, but it was worth it.

One thing that I did find amusing was that at 3:14 am I heard the unmistakable sound of an MU-2 medevac plane landing and watched it taxi by to drop off their patient. I don't miss those all-nighters at all.

We flew home the next day morning, bleary-eyed but happy knowing that a new generation of people just got bit by the flying bug. I wonder what form aviation will take in the next 30 years - I think the industry is going to be profoundly different from the way it was just a couple of years ago, but I have no idea what form it will take.
Now my second post for today is a completely different topic, and I'm curious as to what you think.

Suppose we had a client in the past that used our aircraft on a semi-regular basis. Suppose they decided to go elsewhere for their aviation needs. Suppose I contacted them later on to remind them we would be delighted to have them rejoin us, and asking them to consider us for future business.

Suppose I got a phone call from an angry manager of the other flying service, telling me I was unprofessional in contacting our old clients now that they were dealing primarily with the other flying service.

Am I being unprofessional? My take on it is that we had a prior business relationship with the client, and anyway it's just straight-up competition.

It is kind of a grey area to me - the aviation community is pretty small in Toronto, and we all have to work together even though we all sort of have love-hate relationships with each other. Our lives would be easier if we were the only operation in town, but it's also nice to have other operators to help us out of our plane goes mechanical, or if we need to borrow a pilot etc.

So I'm not sure what the rules are. Is it acceptable to approach past clients who currently use another operator? Is it acceptable to approach clients who are new to us, but who are already being serviced by another charter operator? What if we don't know they are being serviced by another operator and we happen to cold-call them? What if we do know they are being serviced by another operator?

Right now my rule of thumb is that we don't approach clients who are sub-chartered to us from another operator (maybe the other operator's plane is broken, or they are busy that day or whatever, so they have to farm the business out to us), but everything else is fair game.

What do you think? What are the proper ethics? I want to run an ethical operation, but I also want to expand our business.
Lots of random thoughts today:

A few weekends ago Kitsch and I went into Augusta, taking some folks to the Masters Golf Tournament. I just don't get golf, but maybe I'm not in the proper tax bracket to fully appreciate it. On a side note, it's funny how many sports are variations of "hit the ball with the stick". Baseball, golf, hockey, bowling (hit the sticks with the ball), lacrosse, cricket, billiards (fancy name for 'pool'), tennis (bigger stick).

I must say, the operation at KAGS Bush Field in Augusta was incredibly well-run. The folks who work at the FBO there did an amazing job of organizing a few hundred pilots and airplanes, and it was entirely painless. Fuel was fast and efficient, parking was effortless, and they got us a GPU when we asked for one. Whoever designed the airport plan for the Masters tourney should be recognized and awarded a gold star or two. My only remark is that it would be nice to have customs on the field there, at least for the Masters week.

Anyway, after making sure our passengers were taken care of, we rented a car and drove the 90 minutes to Columbia, South Carolina. In Augusta, we could stay at the 1-star Super 8 motel for $450/night each, or we could drive to Columbia and stay at the Marriott for $129/night each. And to be honest, the city of Augusta is kind of a dump so we weren't too upset about the drive.

Why do we even care about a few hundred bucks when a flight like this will run into the tens of thousands of dollars? Well, our boss is a genius - our latest contract includes profit-sharing, which means about 10% of my income is based on whether or not we make money. It's calculated so that things like maintenance / training / aircraft supplies etc. aren't included, which is good as it would make for a pretty big conflict of interest if my compensation was affected by aircraft repairs etc.

Now our operation is structured to basically break even on all the flights we do for our parent company, so that essentially means our opportunity for profit is based on the charters we do. With the price of fuel approaching $8/gallon at the major centers, we now tanker fuel from home base and plan to land at max landing weight at all our destinations so we don't have to uplift any more expensive gas than is necessary.

That being said, we certainly don't skimp on fuel either. My personal comfort zone is to take about an hour's more fuel on top of our legal requirements for all our flights, and I'm not going to change that no matter what it costs.

But if I see an opportunity for an easy cost saving like driving 90 mins to save $700 on hotels, that's a no-brainer. I don't mind exploring the local countryside, and both Kitsch and I will squeal with delight when we get some of that money back on next year's bonus cheque.

Anyway, we arrive in Columbia, South Carolina. We check into the local Marriott and head out for a meal. We come upon a mom n' pop restaurant and decide to roll the dice. I should have known better after reading the sign on the front door. "In the interest of friendliness, we will serve all people who come through these doors, regardless of race, color or creed." You know you're in the south when....