Sunday, December 31, 2006

In the Blink of an Eye

The week between Christmas and New Year's Eve was set to be a slow one. The week started out with poor weather and the few instructional flights I had scheduled on Tuesday were cancelled. Wednesday, the clouds cleared but the winds were blowing strong - gusts exceeding 40 knots were recorded at several major airports. Aloft, things were even crazier with pilot reports from airliners clocking 45 to 50 knot winds as low as 3000 feet.

Thursdays saw the winds decrease a bit and I did two flights: One in the morning with an instructor candidate and the other an evening flight with an instrument candidate. The winds were still blowing that morning and climbing out toward the Central Valley we ran into a couple of downdrafts where climb power and Vx (best angle of climb speed) showed a 200 foot-per-minute descent. Landings at a local non-towered airport were also interesting with a 40 degree quartering headwind at 18 knots gusting to 35 knots. Eights-on-plyons (a ground reference maneuver) were pretty interesting given the strong winds. I demonstrated one crosswind landing for my instructor candidate. As I began the roundout over the runway and removed the crab angle, I found I had nearly full left rudder applied and significant right aileron. I was prepared to go around if things got worse, but it turned out to be one the best landings I've made in a while. It reminded me of what a old instructor said to me when I was first learning to handle really strong crosswind landings: "I enjoy a good crosswind during landing - it gives me something to do."

When nightfall arrived, the wind speed had dropped significantly and the city lights around the Bay Area were twinkling in the cold, crystalline air. This flight would be Running the Gauntlet: An ILS approach, followed by one turn in a hold over a VOR, followed by a VOR alpha approach to a different airport based on the same VOR, a circle to land at the non-towered airport, culminating in a DME arc off a different VOR to intercept the intermediate approach course for an RNAV approach. My instrument candidate got his plane stabilized on the ILS and was waiting for glideslope intercept, his eyes hidden from view under his foggles.

Two miles outside the marker, in a flash, I saw the brief outlines of a flock of geese come straight over the nose and disappear over the top of the aircraft. I instinctively reached for the controls, but never really touched them. The event was over in a flash and I didn't hear the dreaded sound of an impact, so I took a deep breath and we continued on. The pilot asked me if something was the matter and I told him what I had seen. Why geese were flying at 1400 feet above ground level at night was a mystery to me, but I told the tower of our close encounter and I assume he made entered a PIREP for us. Had those geese been any lower, they would have come through the windshield and that would have been B A D.

Back on the ground, I inspected the plane with my flashlight while the owner re-fueled. I couldn't find any sign of impact or damage until I inspected the propeller. The prop was intact and undamaged, too, but on just one tip there was a smear of blood. I remembered seeing some feather or dust or something for an instant as the geese went over us. One of them must have just grazed the tip of the prop.

I'm amazed at how quickly the months, weeks and days of the 2006 have gone by. A quick review of my records shows I recommended 10 candidates for check rides in 2006: two private pilot, three commercial multiengine, two commercial single engine, one instrument, and two initial flight instructors. All but one passed on the first try. No bad considering I spent the first half of the year teaching part time while I worked full time as a freight dog. And it's sad, but I see that my income from flight instructing for 6 months was 10% more than the annual salary I had a freight dog. While no one is in aviation to make a fortune, I find it sad that professional pilots are so poorly compensated.

So as 2006 draws to a close, I'd like to wish all of you a safe and prosperous New Year.


Dave Starr said...

And a safe, prosperous and fun New year to you, too, John. I'm just a little hanger-on watching from the sidelines but I find your stories fascinating and I'm impressed with your thoroughness and dedication to the craft. It is indeed a shame that instructors are so far down the totem pole considering the awesome responsibilities 9and let's face it, hazards) of the job but I was blessed with good instructors years back and I'm glad to see there are still a few in the pipeline today.

Anonymous said...

A Happy, Prosperous, Safe and Healthy New Year to you. Looking forward to your posts in 2007.

Anonymous said...

Best wishes for 2007!

Anonymous said...

John -- you wrote: "I find it sad that professional pilots are so poorly compensated."

I notice that many pilots are politically conservative (which I am not). But wouldn't the conservative point of view be that the reason freight pilots are poorly compensated is simply because that's the supply-and-demand law of the jungle? In other words, freight dogs are poorly paid because the free market demands it. I think a true conversative would say: "Yep, that's true, freight dogs are poorly paid, but there's nothing that can be done without resorting to protectionism, price controls, unions, or socialism. It's just the way it is. If you don't like it, don't become a freight dog, or get out of the business as soon as you can."

Separate question: Are the freight companies raking it in and exploiting their pilots?

John said...


I don't claim to know all the reasons that professional pilots (and I don't mean just freight dogs) are compensated the way they are. I was simply presenting the facts of my situation: I stand to earn considerably more each year as a full time instructor than I could have made as a freight dog.

How in the world should I know if the argument you present is the TRUE conservative's position?

My observation is that human's often seem to want simple answers. This desire for simplicity and "truth" leads many people (regardless of their political affiliation) to create arguments based on things like laissez-faire economics, Sartean free will, and social Darwinism. Personally, I tend to be skeptical of simple explanations because, in my experience, the world is a complicated place.

As to whether air freight companies are "raking it in" at the expense of their pilots, I think you'd need to research a particular operator and the compensation paid to their employees before you could draw a conclusion.

paul said...


Happy new year and a prosperous 2007. Thanks for all the tips and musings over the year.

Alas, my CFII has taken a job with a feeder airline somewhere. As a FO he'll make $24.00 a flight hour, not a duty hour, mind you. He has a commercial license, CFI, CFII, and 600 hrs.

I am hoping he will make it to the big time some day. The funnel to get to the higher paying jobs seems very harsh.

I know I couldn't hack the pay and hours when I was young. I think the pay for being a CFI at the time was about $13,000. At the time being a s/w engineer was paying $33,000.



Tony Harrison said...

Congratulations on your blog site, and the entertaining read you provide.

Close call with those geese - and who would think they are that high at night. IFR birds - what is the world coming to!

Cricket starting in a couple of minutes, so setting my priorities I'm off to tune in channel 9!

Take care

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, just after completing my night endorsement, I was taking a friend for a night (dark) VFR flight. After a routine takeoff at 1100AGL (1500MSL) I entered a climbing left turn for on course, completed instrument scan confirming a stable turn and glanced out the left window to verify my position visually. I was shocked to find I had penetrated a flock of Canadian Geese crossing my flight path right to left. I was planning my emergency return while waiting for an impact that, luckily, never came. Unlike you I found no evidence of contact at all. They really should evolve nav lights if they are going to keep flying at night.