Flight Lesson #2 or "I’m Glad They Put Shock Absorbers on Airplanes!"

Yeah, you see this one coming, I suspect. But here goes anyway…

I flew yesterday afternoon. It was another perfect day here in Virginia. I arrived early, dropped off a check for flight hours at the front desk and sat in the classroom reviewing the stuff I should have reviewed the night before. From this, I concluded that my study habits haven’t changed a lick since college. I suppose there’s some comfort in consistency.

Anyway, at about 12:25, about 25 minutes after the scheduled time, my instructor lands with one of my fellow students, We exchange insincerities and head off to the cubicle where the flight instructor hangs his hat. (Or wings. Not sure what the correct aviation analogy is. I guess we haven’t covered that chapter in ground school yet.)

After a VERY VERY almost unsettlingly VERY short pre-brief, he says “Go file your flight plan. I’ll observe.” I had only seen this done once, but dutifully got on the phone with the disembodied voice of the woman who does whatever it is she does with the flight plan. Check. No problem. I look over to get the thumbs up from the instructor, and he’s on the cell phone. I chose to interpret this as a sign of confidence in my abilities, though I think he was just ordering pizza or some such triviality.

Out the plane and up the air we go. I learned a LOT from this guy. He’s very good, though it was tough to hear his soft voice through the intercom.

We did turns and talked about level flight and ascents and descents and all sort of things, then headed back. And, of course, it was up to me to line it up and get it on the ground. Which I did, albeit with a startling bump.

So here’s the deal, I think. You know when you’re learning basic stuff, somethings are SO basic that the teacher, who’s been doing it for decades, doesn’t even think to mention it?

I still don’t think anyone’s told me exactly how to land a goddamned plane yet!

It’s kind of important.

I have seen it done now a few times, but no one has ever sat down and laid out the proper steps for my poor little brain to put in sequence and follow. I can even dance when I’m choreographed. Why didn’t someone think to tell me how to land? I could probably do that, too, if someone would just freakin’ tell me!

It was a case of not knowing what you don’t know and not knowing which questions to ask in advance of the necessity of the knowledge. It’s a little late to ask “Hey, how DO you get one of these things on the ground anyway?” when you’re on final approach.

So it bounced. And bounced hard. The impact startled and surprised me, though in retrospect, it shouldn’t have. After all, I flew the effin’ thing right into the runway. Shouldn’t have been a surprise.

The instructor must have thought I had it under control, ’cause he was startled as well. But he took charge and got it all back under control and the rest of the procedure was just fine.

It was still a blast. I got high marks for the day with the instructor even saying that I might be a little ahead of the other students, so I must be doing something right. But I learned a valuable lesson.

Quoting from Don Rumsfeld, “… we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

It sounds like gobbledygoop and bureaucratic doublespeak. But in this rare case, I think he got it right. In the case of my attempt to land the tiny little aircraft, I was in the realm of “the one(s) we don’t know we don’t know.”

Ok, he was almost right. He forgot to add “… but should.”

Training at Home #1 or “How to Connect a Wedding Gift for The Best Reception.”

About six or eight years ago, I performed the wedding ceremony for two of my close friends and coworkers out in Los Angeles. A little known law allows anyone to perform wedding ceremonies for 24 hours upon the appropriate training and certification. Anyhow, I flew out to LA, got trained, did the ceremony and of course, a large party ensued. Shortly thereafter, I got a package from Max, the groom and coworker with whom I had worked on the same shift for many years. Now Max has always had an aviation interest, and we always thought it would be fun to take flight lessons together. Then I moved here. Anyway, after the wedding, I get this package. I open it, and it’s a quite expensive hand held aviation radio – a walkie talkie for coordinating flight instructions with the tower!

I was quite taken aback by the lavishness of this generous gift. Unfortunately, it has been sitting at home underutilized all these years, except when I pull it out to see what I can pick up. With the renewed interest and my enrollment in flight school, I pulled it out a few days ago and looked it over. The battery’s shot. I can fix that. Otherwise, it works great! So yesterday, I bring it to work with me and try to listen to the chatter from the aircraft while I am going by National Airport. I didn’t get shit in the morning, so last night, I stopped in the cell phone waiting area, shut down the car and tried again. Lo and behold, I can read the aviation chart (it has the appropriate frequencies on it) correctly – sorta – and I started to hear the 737’s, 757’s and other airliners coming and going from National. I sat there for about 20-30 minutes figuring it out, and then booted up the Prius and headed down the road.

Now being the former physics geek I am, it occurred to me that this radio – this little radio my pal Max gave me in 2003 – operated in the VHF band, defined as 30 – 300 mHz. I just put a new TV antenna up on the roof which is ALSO a VHF antenna as well as a UHF antenna. Hmmmm…. I sez to myself. I wonder if I would be able to pick up the area airports if I hook the highly amplified TV antenna to the aviation walkie talkie?

So I dash over to Radio Shack (now rebranding as “The Shack.” Dumbest. Change. Ever.) and bought the right connecter, BNC, to be specific and headed home. I made a 3-foot cable which would interface with both the TV antenna on the roof AND my aviation radio.

Voila! I can hear much of the tower chatter from Dulles Airport and a little from National! Howzabout that? All that damned college finally paid off!

So now I can listen in and learn the right radio procedures from the folks who do it every day.

All for about two bucks.

Flight Lesson #1 or “The Hand Grenade”

More news about my education in aviation, for both of you keeping score at home. lol…

Today was the first honest-to-goodness, up-in-the-air flight lesson. It started with a significantly long class and briefing. Then the instructor took me out to the little Cessna 172 and did the pre-flight. I learned a TON just during the pre-flight, but the real learning experience came when just as we started the take off roll, the instructor said “Ok, you take off.”

Initially, I thought me meant “take off” like in “Oh, take off, hoser!” ya know, like Bob and Doug MacKenzie? But nope. He actually expected me to pull back gently on the yoke so I did. And the little plane lifted effortlessly into the clear afternoon.

I’ve told a few people already that the sensation was a little like one I experienced in my early Army training. We were on the grenade course, and had been playing with grenade simulators all day. Finally, they take you into the real range, hand you a live grenade and tell you to pull the pin. At that instant, you realize that, uh oh!, there’s a friggin’ LIVE hand grenade in my hand!

It’s kind of like that.

Screwing up in either case would be an eventful proposition, so in today’s case, I tried to concentrate on what I was doing.

The big lesson from today was that there’s an AWFUL lot going on, and I am at the moment, incapable of handling all the sensory input, the instruments, comm and all of that. It’s really quite overwhelming and intimidating. I kept thinking to myself “I’ll never be able to process all this AND have fun at the same time.” But like anything else, it’s a matter of practice and more practice.

I really enjoy the academic part of the training. I suppose that’s because failure in the classroom has such a lesser consequence. I definitely learned that it’s serious business when you’re actually in the air.

It was a most challenging day in that regard. So far, so good, though.

I have LOTS of homework to do!

By the way, I also had the chance to attend their customer appreciation day picnic on Saturday and got to interact with a number of pilots at various stages of their training. All of them made the same recommendation.

I am doing ground school and flight training at the same FBO. So there’s a great deal of continuity of training between the two.

And I am VERY glad that I chose to do the ground school as a classroom option rather than self study. I would recommend taking a class as opposed to computer based study ANY day!

And thanks to y’all for the feedback and advice!

I did the high wing today. Cessna 172S (I believe!) Fuel injected not carburetor.

September 11, 2001

“So, do you think the Army’s going to call you up because of this?”

“I sure as hell hope so.”

That was the big question my supervisor at the E! Channel asked me on 9/11. While I did eventually get called up, I’d gladly give up all the financial and professional gains which resulted if it had never happened. But that’s not what these words are going to be about.

I was awakened that morning by a phone call from my mother-in-law who told us in frantic, disjointed words that something bad was happening. As a native New Yorker, she was understandably shaken at learning that Manhattan was under attack. The message was related to me by my spouse at the time who slammed into the bedroom and shook me awake and said “Wake up! The Pentagon’s under attack!”

I got up, rushed to the TV in a groggy stupor and saw the story as it was still in chaos. Information was rolling into news agencies willy-nilly and much of what was heard and reported was unconfirmed. I dressed and hurried to work in the Wilshire District in LA, near the La Brea Tar Pits. The streets of Los Angeles were relatively deserted – not empty as they were during the LA riots in 1992. But it was clear that people were staying home. Businesses closed for the day and many more operated on essential staff only. Which is why I was going to work.

When I arrived at E!, I could see that many of the national cable networks which shared our satellite space had either gone dark or were carrying coverage from one of the big three networks. It was at that moment that the enormity and the immediate practical impact of this event on this Nation became apparent. Even commerce stopped for a time – shopping networks were carrying round the clock news coverage. Sports channels and others had full-screen graphics up telling people to tune to a network broadcast and follow the news.

One of the positive things about working at a TV network with all measure of high-tech TV equipment is that we could monitor as many TV stations as we had monitors. And we had plenty. CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC all raced to get pictures and firsthand accounts of the unfolding tragedy on the air. I flipped back and forth from moment to moment and channel to channel trying to find the best pictures. No one had a lock on the best, so it was back and forth from channel to channel.

As for what I was doing in between times, E! was trying to decide whether to take coverage from a major news network or stay with the on-air schedule without regard to the situation. My job was to design on-screen graphics in support of either option. Ultimately, E! chose to stay with their own programming rather than switch to one of the majors. I will not debate that decision, but I will observe on my own behalf that I had no interest in entertainment fluff at that point, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else feeling differently.

From the moment it sank in just what was going on, my heart was heavy, but my fists clenched in preparation. When my terrific boss, Ken Mason, asked me if I was going to get called up, not only did I hope so, but I was hoping it would be within the hour. For the rest of the day, most of us sat in network control going about our business with about as much feeling as the machines supporting us. It was quiet and the sounds of our air signal were mixed with the sounds of the coverage coming from ancillary equipment racks where the carnage of the day was being replayed over and over.

I would be many months before I actually got called up and reported here to Washington, D.C. in January, 2002. I spent the next 71 months assigned to the Pentagon in various assignments, some 9/11 related and others not.

A year after the attacks, our office moved into the rebuilt section of the Pentagon and shortly thereafter, the small indoor memorial and chapel was opened. Whenever I thought I was being unfairly put upon, I’d stroll the 30 seconds down the E-ring to the 9/11 memorial and stand for a minute or two.

It gave me perspective in two profound ways. It made me recognize that getting picked on that day wasn’t really so bad, and that any one of these people whose biography and photo were in one of two books would give anything to be in my predicament. Alive. Within reach of those about whom they cared. And it humbled me. Standing there for only a moment made me remember why I was there and that I had better do the best job I could.

Eight years have passed since the attack on our Nation. Today, while driving into my civilian job, I listened to replays of the coverage from that day and remember what it felt like that day. How shocked and horrified. How angry. How resolute. I suspect that will never change. I suspect that I’ll always feel the intense mix of emotions on this day. And I’ll fight back the tears on this day just as I did on this day eight years ago.

For many, the feelings we experienced that day have already escaped us, relegating the horror of the day to a collection of historical facts, figures and stately memorials to those who perished. It is right that we recall the facts and honor those who were murdered that day. However, it is my wish that somehow the shock, horror, anger and resolution I felt – that most everyone felt that morning – stay with us and unite us as it did on 9/11 and in the shadows of that day.

Eight years hence, we find ourselves a divided Nation when in truth, there’s so very much more about us that is alike than those things which divide us.

I wish we weren’t so divided and I have no solution as to how to unite us. I just know that we have it in us. The days following September 11, 2001 were some of America’s finest.

Remember what that was like. Not just today on this horrific anniversary. But every day.

It would serve us all well.

Ground School Lesson #1 or “Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends, Once More”

Last night was the first night of ground school classes.

I arrived to the class early, which is as rare as burning bushes that talk to you. If you could survey all my teachers and college professors you’d get a consensus that early to class isn’t part of my skill set. I promptly made friends with the guy with the iPhone, Jim. Jim is a gregarious guy who has already flown two lessons in the aircraft. I didn’t know you could do the actual flight training before you finished ground school, so I was there 20 minutes early and already learned something. Seems like a good value for time spent in the classroom, and I hadn’t even met the instructor yet.

One by one, the other student pilots arrived making for a total of 14 students. I noticed an unusually diverse crowd. Granted, they were mostly men. There’s one wisp of a woman who was very nice and we only spoke briefly, but she’d already taken a couple of lessons so was ahead of the game.

The next three hours was a thorough overview of aviation in general and what to expect from the training. The instructor knew the material, and while he was long winded, he did a fine job of leading the class through the material in chapter one.

I left after hearty farewells to some of my more gregarious classmates and headed home.

I am excited about undergoing the training and even more anxious to by some flight hours and get started with the practical application. I think it will also be almost therapeutic for me to engage in something which I can get excited about. If the rest of this is as positive an experience for me as last night was, it’s going to be a helluva transformative nine weeks.

But I won’t jinx it. We’ll see how tomorrow’s class goes.