Upwind: I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

“That word…I don’t think it means what you think it means,” says Inigo Montoya to his over-confident and insulting boss, Vizzini, as he keeps exclaiming “Inconceivable!” as they behold an unknown stranger catching up to them in the movie “The Princess Bride”.

That phrase rings in my head every time I observe an aircraft taking off whose pilot, even before being clear the departure end of the runway, calls the position as “upwind”. The first time I became aware of that sloppy practice was years ago when I saw in AOPA’s “Non- Towered Airport Operations” safety brochure a note that, despite just clearly depicting the traffic patterns leg as presented by the Airman’s Information Manual, pilots were using the term to describe their position after takeoff. When I wrote AOPA an-email protesting the incorrect terminology in a safety brochure, they blew me off; and, sometime, after I saw an editorial in Flight Training magazine where the editor defended its use as “not important”. Today, that practice is obviously being trained and become so widespread (along with transport-category traffic patterns by Cessnas) that it’s appearing in mainstream aviation publications and was referenced in the latest FAA advisory Circular on this subject (More on that later.). When I have inquired about how we got here, I was told it was dragged into usage by pilots (and just as obviously CFI’s) flying at towered fields where it has been in wide usage by air traffic controllers. Indeed, I have a Go Pro video from a trip I made to Ft Worth Spinks in 2021 where the tower controller when calling departing traffic to another aircraft inbound referred to the opposing aircraft’s position as “in the upwind”. Ok. Fine. I didn’t blink for a second at that usage because I understood that (1) I have someone controlling all traffic at this airport so I don’t have to worry much about a rogue appearing where I don’t expect it (unless it’s dog or coyote which I have had happen but on the runway), (2) using “upwind” and “downwind” as a directional reference” makes a lot of sense due to its natural use when landing and taking off, and (3) controllers use the terms “upwind” or “downwind” in reference to the active runway even when talking “position”. Additionally, because I’m at a towered field, I’ve got at least one set of eyeballs (if not more) and often a radar setup that’s tracking every aircraft in the airspace, so having someone sneak up on me or getting in my way (other than an aircraft being operated by an errant pilot the controller is yelling at), and I am not dependent on another pilot’s radio call to help me understand and see where he is. That is not true when I am at a non-towered field where pilots are often overly dependent upon the radio (and it doesn’t really matter if your non-towered airport’s regulations require everyone to give and use traffic advisory calls to keep you safe…it’s “see and avoid”, baby!)

So why I do care and why am I harping about this? Well, part of it is because I was trained as a Fighter Radar Intercept Officer where your fellow aviators got incensed at you if you made a radio call during a fight that didn’t tell them EXACTLY what they needed to know (Including and ESPECIALLY the bogey’s position). Yes, I know you’re going to say that a correct position call isn’t as important as a bogy call in a real or simulated fight and you would be right; yet, I would come back and say if you think there’s not thing as time- critical position calls in a non-towered field traffic pattern, I’d say you’ve never been anywhere where there are so many planes in the pattern that pilots are wandering into each other’s way or bailing out to other places that are less busy. Yes, I have ADS-B in and it generally helps me know when you haven’t call or when you’re telling me you’re “upwind” and I know you’re not (as defined by official FAA sources); but think about it, do you really want make an ambiguous radio call to a facing pilot without a working iPad, a crackling and honky radio, or staring into sun-glare in the wrong place?

Even without that, if pilots are using these calls as safety advisories (and why else are we doing them unless it’s to let our buddies know who’s flying that day), they have to be in alignment with official FAA documentation we all know, love, and train to. Since this whole thing appears to be blamed on air traffic controller usage, then we should be able to find this usage in the Pilot/Controller Glossary, right? To reiterate what it’s reason for being is, I’ll quote part of the first paragraph from its “Purpose”:

“This Glossary was compiled to promote a common understanding of the terms used in the Air Traffic Control system. It includes those terms which are intended for pilot/controller communications. Those terms most frequently used in pilot/controller communications are printed in bold italics. The definitions are primarily defined in an operational sense applicable to both users and operators of the National Airspace System. Use of the Glossary will preclude any misunderstandings concerning the system’s design, function, and purpose. “

The important points here are “common understanding” and the idea that it “will preclude any misunderstandings concerning the system’s design, function, and purpose. “

So, now, let’s search for the term “Upwind”. The first hits I get are under the term “TRAFFIC PATTERN”. Here’s the sentences were the hits occur:

TRAFFIC PATTERN: The traffic flow that is prescribed for aircraft landing at, taxiing on, or taking off from an airport. The components of a typical traffic pattern are upwind
leg, crosswind leg, downwind leg, base leg, and final approach.

1. Upwind Leg: A flight path parallel to the landing runway in the direction of landing. b. Crosswind Leg: A flight path at right angles to the landing runway off its upwind end.

There are two things to note. The first is that the upwind leg is a flight path parallel to the landing runway in the direction of landing. According to the dictionaries I looked at, parallel describes to lines that are equidistant and every point and don’t meet. We’ll see that graphically in a minute. The other thing to note is the use of “upwind” as a direction, as in “off its upwind end”. So we can see that officially “upwind” is defined as a leg of a traffic pattern and as a direction.

The other hits in the Glossary are “UPWIND LEG” (already discussed) and again as a direction in the definition of MOUNTAIN WAVE, i.e., “as the air hits the upwind side of the range”.

So, since a traffic pattern is referenced. Let’s take a look at how traffic patterns are depicted. First we’ll look in the Airman’s Information Manual, specifically Figure 4-3-1, “Components of a Traffic Pattern”

That doesn’t show us anything about the part of the traffic pattern we are discussing. It only shows us a landing pattern to a full stop. However, the next figure in the AIM does:

Now this does and it shows us that the position of the aircraft after takeoff is considered to be on the departure, not the “upwind”. Of course, this doesn’t show us the upwind leg because it is representing single runway operations and is typically what your going to see at either towered or non-towered fields. I hope we can agree that this is nearly always the traffic set-up you see at towered fields. There’s not going to be an upwind leg here at a towered field unless the controller decides there is; that’s not true at all in a non-towered field, even though it may not a “a legally-approved” leg.

The picture gets a bit more interesting when we look at the latest version of the Airplane Flying Handbook for how it depicts traffic patterns.

Here we see both left-handed and right-handed patterns, and low and behold, both depictions show that the leg right after takeoff is labeled “Departure”. Upwind is not shown because as in the single-runway depiction in the AIM, it’s not normally used.

To be consistent then with these FAA publications, if you are calling your position right after takeoff you are on the “departure” leg. Upwind is simply NOT correct!

Now, if you pay attention to FAA Advisory Circulars (ACs), then you know that AC 90-66C “Non-Towered Airport Field Operations”. Of course, ACs are advisory and not regulatory so you don’t have to follow them but the FAA will probably refer to them anytime you do something you were warned against, broke a reg, and got caught. The first thing it says about communications I think is relevant is 9.5. Prior to Takeoff, VFR or IFR, Traffic Verification, and Communications.

Communication at non-towered airports or at airports where the control tower is closed is critical. Pilots are reminded that in these cases surveillance of other traffic by the air traffic controller is removed from the safety picture; hence, you are assuming this role. All traffic, whether IFR or VFR, should, at a minimum, monitor the CTAF. For departures a minimum of 10 minutes prior to taxi and arrivals a minimum of 10 miles out from the airport, you should broadcast your intentions. The importance of air-to-air communications cannot be overemphasized. Failure to follow this communication protocol has contributed to near midair collisions (NMAC), and as such could be considered careless and reckless operation of an aircraft. (Emphasis mine. Sounds pretty important to me…)

Here’s what it has to say about the call itself:

Self-Announce Position and/or Intentions. “Self-announce” is a procedure whereby pilots broadcast their aircraft call sign, position, altitude, and intended flight activity or ground operation on the designated CTAF. This procedure is used almost exclusively at airports that do not have an operative control tower or an FSS on the airport.

So, someone show me where you position right after takeoff is “UPWIND”. You are heading “upwind” and if that’s what you wish to say, spell it out (without clobbering the frequency) , but just calling “UPWIND” (right after takeoff) since you’re supposed to be calling position can be mistaken for the UPWIND LEG and can easily cause an incoming pilot to waste time and attention looking for you in the wrong place!

This approach is re-emphasized again in the section 91.11.2 Aircraft Operating in the Traffic Pattern at a Non-Towered Airport. Among other things, it states: “In the airport traffic pattern, good communication and a pilot’s responsibility to see and avoid are essential mitigations to avoid a possible midair collision. In addition, following established traffic pattern procedures eliminates excessive maneuvering at low altitudes, reducing the risk of loss of aircraft control. The following is an example of traffic pattern position reporting: state, “Entering left/right downwind for runway [XX];” when on the downwind, state, “On the left/right downwind for runway [XX];” when on base leg, state, “On left/right base for runway [XX];” finally, when turning, state, “On final for runway [XX].”

And then there is this:

Avoid Confusing Language. Avoid confusing language that could attribute to the risk of a midair collision. To avoid misunderstandings, pilots should avoid using the words “to” and “for” whenever possible. These words might be confused with runway numbers or altitudes. Be specific and clear so that other pilots in the pattern are not confused as to the runway or procedure you intend to use to ensure you and the other pilots are clear as to each other’s positions within the traffic pattern to mitigate the possibility of a midair collision. “

Other pilots should not have to guess or figure out what you mean. Make it clear.

Lastly, there is this note in the AC which is bolded: Note: The upwind leg is separate and distinct from the departure leg and often used to reference the flight path flown after takeoff (or a touch and go).

Frankly, this note should not need to exist. I also believe that the FAA needed to have discouraged the use of “upwind” in this manner, just as they have discouraged then “all traffic please advise call” elsewhere in the advisory circular. Yes, I did write them about this and suggest they do that. What kind of a response did I get? They’d consider that in the next update cycle of the circular. Nothing else. The last time I wrote them about an advisory circular was to tell them the 5 hours in make and model required for a CFI to teach in a light sport had been pulled out of the law years before. It took about 5 years more and pestering them several times before it got changed.

This is a problem of our own making. We’re the ones who can fix it and will benefit if we do. It’ll be one less thing the FAA has to write about.

First Impressions of the E-Prop on my CTSW

I recently had an E-Prop installed on my CTSW as a replacement for the three-bladed Neuform (model number CR3-65-47-101.6) that had been on the airplane since it was manufactured in 2006.  I had heard about the E-Prop through Rex and Jeremiah Johnson who perform the maintenance on my aircraft (and who had been installing these props on CTSW’s and LS’s belonging to multiple owners) and from CT owners on different social media sites.  The reviews from everyone were overwhelmingly positive, with most CT owners saying they had seen a 5-knot increase in cruise speeds over the Neuform.  Additionally, when I looked up the specifications on the E-prop at the manufacturer’s website (http://www.e-props.fr) and you can look up what propeller can work for you by aircraft type, I discovered it had a 4000-hour TBO!  Jeremiah said he could get me into it for around $2400 and get one pretty quickly, minimizing downtime; I decided to go for it.  

Here’s a picture of the E-prop installed on my aircraft.  It is a ground-adjustable propeller composed of three black carbon blades protected by titanium on the leading edge, making it extremely robust from impact damage over the outer part of the blade.

E-Prop Installed on my CTSW – Photo by Jeremiah Johnson

Compared to the profile of the Neuform CR3, the E-Prop DUR -3 is very narrow and has a sharper rear edge. (I heard that some owners were wearing gloves to protect their hands when they pull the prop through on pre-flight, so I did put a pair of flight gloves I can use for that in the aircraft, though there are ways to handle the prop that make it unnecessary.) My impression of the E-Prop when I first saw it mounted was that it was longer than the Neuform, but it’s the same diameter.  However, it is 7.2 lbs. lighter (4.8 lbs. total weight from my weight and balance sheet though the website data shows 4.4.).   

Where my Neuform was adjusted to give 4900-5000 RPM (usually closer to the latter) at Wide Open Throttle (WOT), the E-Prop is set initially 26 degrees but then adjusted to a value between 5000-5800 RPM on the ground to get 5500 RPM in flight.  For the 912ULS in my airplane, 5500 RPM is at maximum continuous power, so getting it there gives you the most continuous power you can use.     

Jeremiah Johnson (owner and prime wrench-turner of Johnson Aero, LLC at KRVS in Tulsa, OK) installed the propeller and I asked him to perform the check flights so I would not lose time doing them and could simply pick up the airplane and return home.  He reported that WOT corresponded to 5600 RPM and 126 KIAS at 2500 ft MSL.  He had climbed the airplane up at 60 knots with 15 degrees of flap (i.e., the nominal flap and airspeed for initial takeoff in the SW) and climbed at over 1000 fpm rate of climb (ROC).  (Temperature that day would have been between 70 and 72 degrees F at the surface and the airplane would have had about 20 gals of fuel in it making its gross weight around 890 lbs.)   He stated that he could dial the prop back to 5500 WOT and thought that might give me a few more knots of cruise if I wanted it.

Here’s the picture he sent of the panel during that run:

E-Prop First run-Photo by Jeremiah Johnson

When he and I discussed whether to tweak the prop pitch anymore, he asked me if I wanted rate of climb or cruise speed.  Frankly, I have never considered the SW a weak climber; on a cool day, half-fuel or so, and single pilot, I would often see 1000+ fpm minute climbs with the Neuform (15 degrees of flap at 60 knots).  But that would generally be during conditions at least 10 and probably closer to 20 degrees cooler on the ground.  So, this DID appear to me to be significantly better performance and in both climb and cruise.  My decision was to tweak the prop back just a little to get it to 5500 WOT at cruise so I could essentially use WOT if needed without having to manage it too much if at all.  As it turned out, after he tweaked it, the ground run came in at 5560 RPM with the blade angle set 1 degree higher at 27 degrees. I didn’t check it at WOT coming home because weather was an issue getting to my first stop and that had almost my full attention, though I was still noting power settings, indicated airspeeds, and ground speeds to get a feel for whether my performance expectations were being met.  I’ll show you some data in a minute to show that not only were they met but they were exceeded. 

On my initial climbout from KRVS, I was seeing about 1100 fpm rate of climb with the flaps at 15 and I believe I remember seeing about 1000 fpm at flaps zero and at best rate. (I had about 34 gallons of fuel in the aircraft at takeoff and I’m running about 195 lbs (a bit heavy for me) so the airplane’s gross weight would have been approximately 1128 lbs.). Takeoff temp was about 81 degrees F. so 10 degrees higher than when Jeremiah had flown his run the day before.  I made several climbs that eventually resulted in cruising most of the flight at 7500 ft MSL where it was not only smooth and cool but there was a nice tailwind (I think about 12 knots).   I remember seeing 131-136 kts groundspeed while running 5300 – 5400 RPM and between 117-120 KIAS.  Below is a Flight Aware plot of the flight, though it didn’t pick me up until I had already passed Okmulgee.  From there. I was I headed toward KF00 to avoid an area of IFR weather to the east, though I eventually realized (using ADS-B METARS and out-the window observation) that it had broken up to the point of being VFR with scattered cloud decks.

Screenshot of Flight Aware Plot for N547AW: KRVS to KOSA

After landing, taking a break, and refueling at Mt Pleasant, Texas (KOSA), I took off into the second and last leg of the flight.  Winds, cruising conditions, and down-leg weather made climbing back up to 7500 MSL my preferred option, after a short level off at both 3500 and 5500 to get oil temps back into the “green” (from the “yellow”) for each climb.  It was a bit warmer, and I could tell the tailwinds were slowly decreasing. Still, I was seeing the same type of climb performance, with initial climb rates at or exceeding 1000 fpm and not getting lower than 800 fpm as the rate settled out. 

Screenshot of Flight Aware Plot for N546AW: KOSA to KLVJ

 As I progressed south and got closer to the Houston area, the cloud tops were starting to push up and slightly beyond 7500, and I decided to descend below the cloud bases rather than go higher.  I preferred to stick with a lower route that would allow a direct approach to KLVJ from along the bay even though the ride would be hotter and bumpier.  My tailwinds were also dying out; I even seemed to be taking some on the head, so I was using throttle to keep my IAS needle in the green, especially since I was bouncing around.  That said, I was running around 5300 RPM and seeing the IAS at the top or within a few knots of the green arc and keeping GS around 120 KTS.

In addition to the data above, here are some more of my first impressions of the E-Prop versus the Neuform:

  • The noise from the E-Prop is a bit raspier than the Neuform and I believe it to be a bit louder with a little more vibration. Not significantly so but enough to notice.
  • I think it’s got a bit more torque during cruise, which means a bit more right rudder.  I didn’t notice it as much during takeoff, but the rudder trim was not where I usually flew it.  It makes sense that with the higher power levels this prop is running at, more torque and rudder should be expected.  Again, it’s not a lot more but it is noticeable.
  • The SW is a slick little airplane in a descent (especially with the flaps at minus 6) anyway but, in powered descents with the E-Prop, the airplane will accelerate much faster than you’re expecting it to and can easily get well into the yellow arc than it would with the Neuform.
  • Both my landings were a more firm than usual, and I’m not sure if it was due to me being a bit “behind” on landing in the hotter days that are returning, if there is a difference in how I finesse power during landing (which I would expect to be the case), or both.  Will let you know as soon as I can spend more time in the pattern with it.     
  • I mentioned that the rear edge is fairly sharp and you have to be careful when you pull the prop through. The manufacturer supplies soft, spongy material covers that slip over each blade and protect for personnel injury on the ground. In this shot below, the covers are installed on the CTSW post-flight. 

Am I happy with this purchase? You bet! The performance gains I’ve been hearing about truly are there, and if it lives up to its expected long lifetime, it’ll be worth every penny I paid and then some. But time will tell. I’ll be sharing my experiences with the Ct and this prop on my blog and also on my You Tube channel, so stay tuned.

From Skeptic to Believer: Light Sport TBO is NOT Mandatory!

AUTHOR’s NOTE: This is a long piece and intended for those who have a strong interest in the subject, i.e., you’ve got a stake in this and are hearing what I am and have been about TBO being mandatory for Light Sport. No one has been able to prove to me it was so; so I did a documentation/requirements trace to establish a more solid footing on where the truth laid. Moreover, my CTSW is hitting the Rotax 912 15 year calendar TBO clock and it’s not a small thing to either replace my engine with about 900 hrs to full hourly TBO or take the airplane ELSA, which has financial and use impacts I don’t want. So, here’s what I know and why. If you want to push back on this, feel free but don’t contact me without solid regulatory documentation I can verify.

There have been various misunderstandings since Light Sport was birthed in the U.S. about how much authority the FAA surrendered to ASTM (The American Society for Testing and Materials, which is not an international standards body).   The answer is actually “none”, with the distinction that ASTM standards were accepted by the agency in lieu of aircraft design and manufacturing standards instead of aircraft design standards set forth in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR’s). I first became a Light Sport practitioner in 2009 when my wife and I bought a 2006 Flight Design CTSW and I started flying on my driver’s license vice a formal FAA medical.  I still own that same CTSW today; I’ve been a Light Sport pilot ever since and have been a Light Sport instructor since 2012.  So, I’ve been involved both with teaching pilots but certainly as an SLSA owner responsible for maintaining the airworthiness and operational ability of the aircraft.  

When I first bought in, the Rotax maintenance manuals specified you had to be factory trained on any Rotax repair (and that would include FAR owner-approved oil and spark plugs).  Here’s a link to the applicable page in the 2009 version of the Rotax Line Maintenance Manual that states that.

Reading that in a vacuum, you would think that this must be true especially since the common wisdom was at the time (and still reverberates in some places today) that the FAA had deferred all authority over to ASTM and so what Rotax says goes.  But it’s simply not true. (It’s not only because of who the regulator is but the “manufacturer” who determines everything about the aircraft is the aircraft manufacturer, not the engine manufacturer, though what the engine manufacturer says drives what must be done to maintain the engine.)

My proof is a 2015 “Schober” FAA legal opinion which states: “The short answer to your question is no, the special airworthiness certificate remains valid even if a mechanic or repairman has not attended the manufacturer’s specified training program. A manufacturer may not impose additional requirements that are not contained in the regulations on mechanics or repairmen. As we detail below, a manufacturer cannot compel a repairman to complete a specific training program to perform compliant repairs. Therefore, the aircraft’s special airworthiness certificate is not rendered invalid when an appropriately certificated mechanic or repairman performs maintenance on the aircraft without completing a training program specified by the manufacturer in the aircraft’s maintenance instructions.”

The same manual also refers to “time limits” and “Time Between Overhauls” (TBO), the latter being the main subject we’re examining.   In the Time Limit page (Section 05-10-00, page 5), the important part that we’re interested in is the second paragraph entitled “After reaching the time limit” which states: “NOTICE: after reaching this time limit, the engine has to be shipped to an authorized ROTAX overhaul facility.”  There are notes after this that also bear noticing: “NOTES: Regarding engine operating limitations, see the “limits of operations” in the relevant Operators Manual. Maintenance checks and replacement of defined components are required on this engine!  These procedures are described in chapter 05 and are required by the authority in order to ensure Continued Airworthiness”.  Note that the determination of airworthiness and what is required for maintenance lies with “the authority”, which is EASA in Europe and the FAA in the US. ( The latest Line Maintenance Manual Section 05-10-00 page 4 still talks about TBO being mandatory and page 5 still says it has to be shipped out after reaching TBO.)

That lends some weight to the idea that TBO is mandatory here.  But there’s two more things to consider, and the first is from Rotax itself.  Section 04-00-00 page 1 in the Line Maintenance Manual has two relevant inputs.  The first is from a block centered near the top of the page entitled “Approval”.  It states: “The airworthiness limitations section is approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in accordance with Part 21A.31(a)(3) and FAR 33.4”.   We’ll look at what FAR 33.4 says in a minute but there’s nothing in what we just read about approval by the FAA, just EASA. But even that is not as it first appears, because further down the “EASA approved” page is a block listing “Airworthiness Limitations” which says: “None. For the Rotax type engine 912 Series the airworthiness limitations are not applicable.” 

FAR 33.4 concerns “Instructions for Continued Airworthiness” and states: “The applicant must prepare Instructions for Continued Airworthiness in accordance with appendix A to this part that are acceptable to the Administrator. The instructions may be incomplete at type certification if a program exists to ensure their completion prior to delivery of the first aircraft with the engine installed, or upon issuance of a standard certificate of airworthiness for the aircraft with the engine installed, whichever occurs later.”  I will bring up the FAA’s “type certification” instructions for Light Sport later, but for now, just be aware that we need to look at it to see if there is import for TBO (and there is!)

For now, let’s look at another FAA legal opinion that pertains to the required maintenance, i.e., August 21, 2013 opinion answering questions posed by Charles Willette.  Mr. Willette “requested a determination as to whether information contained in the maintenance manuals for aircraft issued special airworthiness certificates in the light sport category (S-LSA) is mandatory.”  Here’s the answer from that letter, including a rather important footnote related to the above: “Part 43 does not mandate that a person specifically perform maintenance, alteration, or preventive maintenance solely in accordance with those instructions specified in a manufacturer’s maintenance manual. It also permits a person to perform such work in accordance with other methods, techniques, and practices acceptable to the Administrator. 

The FAA recognizes that some manufacturers have placed what they deem “mandatory” replacement or overhaul times in their maintenance manuals for S-LSA and that these provisions may be consistent with consensus standards accepted by the FAA. While following the intervals set forth in the maintenance manuals is an acceptable means of maintaining the aircraft under § 43.13(a), a maintenance provider may use another method that is acceptable to the FAA. The intervals specified in maintenance manuals for S-LSA, therefore, are not per se mandatory. Consequently, a maintenance provider may develop an alternative that is acceptable to the FAA and maintain an S-LSA in accordance with those provisions.”

There’s also a footnote to a section referring to another paragraph that is relevant to understanding this: “Section 43.16 refers to Airworthiness Limitations. A person performing an inspection or other maintenance specified in the Airworthiness Limitations section of a manufacturer’s maintenance manual must perform that work in accordance with that section or as otherwise specifically approved by the Administrator. Maintenance manuals for S-LSA do not have an Airworthiness Limitations section to which the provisions of this section would apply.”

So, Willette says that it’s ultimately up to the standards that the FAA sets.  If the FAA standards match the consensus standards, then the consensus standards apply.  If they don’t, then the FAA standards rule.  That’s a key point to remember, and exactly where the misinterpretation of how the consensus standards play in.

At this point, all the pointers are leaning away from the idea that any maintenance items are truly mandatory. That’s not the complete picture, though, and I’ll come back to that in a minute.  Now, there’s always something that gums up the works, and that thing is the Keller legal opinion issued also in 2015 (i.e., in July after Schober was issued in April of the same year).  There are two parts to the Keller answer, and both seem damming until you read them closely and include one more piece omitted from the opinion, i.e., what the actual type certification documentation for SLSA has to say.  The first piece of the Keller question and answer is this (with the important parts excerpted to save space and time):

“1. Is an S-LSA airworthiness certificate rendered invalid when mandatory schedules for overhaul or replacement of components are disregarded and a component or system has exceeded a life limit specified in a manufacturer’s maintenance manual? 

The short answer to your question is no, an airworthiness certificate cannot be “rendered invalid,” though it may be rendered ineffective. Under§ 21.190(b)(l)(ii) and (c) the FAA will issue a special airworthiness certificate in the light-sport category if the aircraft meets the FAA’s requirements. If maintenance on an aircraft is not performed in accordance with 14 CFR parts 43 and 91, the aircraft’s airworthiness certificate is ineffective under 14 CFR § 21.181(a)(3)—this would render the certificate neither appropriate nor current for the purposes of § 91.203(a)(1), which requires that an appropriate and current airworthiness certificate be in an aircraft when it is operated.”

The second piece is even more direct:

“2. Does the FAA consider such an aircraft operated as presumed above to still be airworthy and should the agency take no enforcement action against owners or operators of an aircraft operated with components and/or systems beyond time between overhauls (TBO) and/or outside manufacturer specified life limits as described in the manufacturer’s maintenance manuals.

The aircraft would not be airworthy if operated beyond TBO or outside the manufacturer’s specified life limits. Section 21.181(a)(3)(ii) states that “a special airworthiness certificate in the light-sport category is effective as long as the aircraft conforms to its original configuration, except for those alterations performed in accordance with an applicable consensus standard and authorized by the aircraft’s manufacturer or a person acceptable to the FAA.” An aircraft that is operated after components have exceeded life limits specified in the manufacturer’s maintenance manual or other procedures developed by a person acceptable to the FAA would not comply with § 21.181.”

Seems conclusive when read in isolation, but there are a couple of things to look at here. First, the manufacturer is Flight Design, not Rotax, and nowhere does it say anything in the FD maintenance manual about the Rotax manuals except “refer” to them. FD does not specify any engine life limits or that Rotax life limits must be specifically adhered to. Engine reliability typically follows a bathtub curve, with infant mortality being a major risk during new operation and engine wear accelerating at some point late into the engine’s lifetime. Where Rotax set the TBO on that curve is an unknown and we also do not know what assumptions were behind it, which may have been driven by other factors than reliability and/or safety. The only thing that would make passing the calendar limit immediately unsafe would be if TBO was set at the point where the reliability curve heads for the cliff, and no manufacturer in their right mind is going to set TBO at that point. It makes no sense to suddenly declare that you are no longer in the original configuration just because you have passed TBO if there is nothing in the engine that points to any component needing immediate replacement. Also, if wear results in an alteration, then the airplane is no longer in its original configuration as soon as it is flown and will never return to it. It’s a specious argument, especially when combined with the FAA’s stance that TBO is not mandatory for any Part 91 operator.

There is also another missing piece to consider I referred to earlier, i.e., guidance from the c certification instructions for initial issuance of a special light-sport certificate.

Here’s what the appropriate sections of 21.181 say:

“(1) Standard airworthiness certificates, special airworthiness certificates—primary category, and airworthiness certificates issued for restricted or limited category aircraft are effective as long as the maintenance, preventive maintenance, and alterations are performed in accordance with Parts 43 and 91 of this chapter and the aircraft are registered in the United States.

(3) A special airworthiness certificate in the light-sport category is effective as long as—

(i) The aircraft meets the definition of a light-sport aircraft;

(ii) The aircraft conforms to its original configuration, except for those alterations performed in accordance with an applicable consensus standard and authorized by the aircraft’s manufacturer or a person acceptable to the FAA;

(iii) The aircraft has no unsafe condition and is not likely to develop an unsafe condition; and

(iv) The aircraft is registered in the United States.”

So, the relevant points are that (1) the LSA must be maintained according to parts 43 and 91 of the FAR’s, and (2) the aircraft must conform to its original configuration, unless the manufacturer approves it.

I’ve talked a lot about what Part 43 says, so let’s look now at Part 91.  The regulation in Part 91 that controls maintaining an SLSA for operation is 91.327 (b): 

“(b) No person may operate an aircraft that has a special airworthiness certificate in the light-sport category unless – 

(1) The aircraft is maintained by a certificated repairman with a light-sport aircraft maintenance rating, an appropriately rated mechanic, or an appropriately rated repair station in accordance with the applicable provisions of part 43 of this chapter and maintenance and inspection procedures developed by the  aircraft manufacturer or a  person acceptable to the FAA;

(2) A condition inspection is performed once every 12 calendar months by a certificated repairman (light-sport aircraft) with a maintenance rating, an appropriately rated mechanic, or an appropriately rated repair station in accordance with inspection procedures developed by the  aircraft manufacturer or a  person acceptable to the  FAA;

(3) The owner or operator complies with all applicable airworthiness directives;

(4) The owner or operator complies with each safety directive applicable to the aircraft that corrects an existing unsafe condition. In lieu of complying with a safety directive an owner or operator may – 

(i) Correct the unsafe condition in a manner different from that specified in the safety directive provided the person issuing the directive concurs with the action; or

(ii) Obtain an FAA waiver from the provisions of the safety directive based on a conclusion that the safety directive was issued without adhering to the applicable consensus standard;

(5) Each alteration accomplished after the aircraft‘s date of manufacture meets the applicable and current  consensus standard and has been authorized by either the manufacturer or a  person acceptable to the  FAA;

(6) Each major alteration to an  aircraft product produced under a  consensus standard is authorized, performed and inspected in accordance with  maintenance and inspection procedures developed by the manufacturer or a  person acceptable to the  FAA; and

(7) The owner or operator complies with the requirements for the recording of major repairs and  major alterations performed on type-certificated products in accordance with § 43.9(d) of this chapter, and with the retention requirements in § 91.417.”

So this says that I have to have the aircraft maintained by someone in accordance with Part 43 (i.e., an LSRM or A&P), do a conditional inspection every 12 months, and go to the manufacturer for any alteration and get approval, which for a CTSW means getting an approval from Flight Design via what they call an MRA (Major Repair and Alteration, which is a manufacturer’s permission slip). There’s nothing here about TBO that really relates; it simply points back to Part 91 and 43.  There’s more about Part 91 in a minute.

So, now in bowing to both Keller and 91.327, let’s go see what we can find relating to the initial issuance of a Light Sport airworthiness certificate and if that will tell us anything about whether TBO is mandatory or not. In actuality, what one has to address is what’s in Keller since it seems relatively ironclad (if you disregard the rest of what I’ve presented) and is the latest legal opinion of the ones I’ve gathered.  I started looking for something that could talk to me about that initial Light Sport airworthiness certificate issuance, and I found it in FAA Order 8130.2J dated 7/21/2017 “Airworthiness Certification of Aircraft.  On page 9-4: (10)(c)(1), it states: 

“(c) Maintenance and Inspection Procedures.

1. Verify that the maintenance and inspection procedures address engine/powerplant maintenance. Overhaul procedures for the engine/powerplant are not mandatory. Engine/powerplant procedures may be incorporated entirely within the aircraft maintenance manual or by reference into a separate engine/powerplant manual (such as a manual from the engine OEM). If the engine/powerplant maintenance and overhaul procedures are in a separate manual, verify that the aircraft maintenance manual includes a reference to the engine/powerplant and overhaul manuals; the reference must specify the unique identification information for the manual.”

This definitively states that overhaul procedures for the engine/powerplant are not mandatory for initial issuance of an SLSA certificate then the “initial condition” limits of Keller are satisfied and, by its own arguments, i,e., since overhaul procedures are NOT mandatory for a Light Sport airworthiness certificate, i.e., how can there be a violation 21.181 if they are provided but you don’t use them?  

As to where you find documented evidence that the FAA policy is that Part 91 operators do not have to obey TBO, it’s in National Policy Notice N8900.410 Subject: “Clarification of Inspection and Overhaul Requirements Under Part 91”.  Section 1 (b) states: “Overhauls are Maintenance. By definition, overhauls are a form of maintenance, not inspection, and are not included in an inspection program. Overhauls are part of the maintenance program. Part 91 operators are not required to comply with a manufacturer’s entire maintenance program; as such, overhauls are not mandatory for part 91 operators.”  (That notice was written in 2017 and given a 2018 expiration date because the expectation was that it would be incorporated by then; it hasn’t been because the FAA database is being replaced by the DOT DRS database that doesn’t seem to contain it but where you can verify it was released and which working group did it.)

This policy is why operators of standard category aircraft operate and sell aircraft that have exceeded both calendar and hourly TBO intervals without concern.  (You might want to go look for the articles and presentations Mike Busch has been giving on this subject.). There is no practical reason for Light Sport aircraft to be operated differently than the rest of general aviation, and you can find plenty of folks testifying to Rotax 912’s meeting or exceeding TBO even when operating on 100LL.  It’s all in the maintenance and the real-time condition of the engine.

While I realize that many FAA FSDO’s and personnel are saying differently, I believe this is because most don’t know the history, haven’t looked closely at all the regs and policies, or care enough about Light Sport to really run the issue to ground. There is enough solid documentation and reason to say that TBO is not mandatory for SLSA owners, as I’ve shown. But the reality is that getting a blanket answer out of the FAA that takes into account all the facts has, so far for me, proven to be impossible. You’ve got to dig down into the details and assemble the whole picture or you wind up with nothing but hearsay and innuendo, which is what we have out there today; and unless someone with some political weight weighs in, that is not likely to change. The result will be that owners like me will be forced to either convert their airworthiness certificates to ELSA to avoid trashing a perfectly good engine or spend over $30,000 dollars (ready or not) on getting a new engine to hold onto the SLSA certificate. Taking the ELSA route avoids the immediate expense and gives me control over when I take both the “infant mortality/installation error” engine failure risk (and every major problem I’ve had with my Rotax has been maintenance induced) and when I spend the money to replace the engine. But going ELSA is not without both insurance and use impacts, and it’s not clear that some long term goals I had can still be achieved. Even sadder, the impact on the Light Sport market overall if TBO is mandatory is HUGE; every SLSA owner flying with an engine with a calendar life is working against its clock before having to replace or rebuild (with its inherent risks) a perfectly good engine that still has life left in it. Current LSA owners whose airplane have engines that have or almost have run out the TBO calendar life clock (regardless of engine hours and maintenance) can immediately subtract $25-$30,000 off their market prices; and the new guys will need to realize they may be up against the clock when they spend 150 grand or more for their new ride.  

If TBO is mandatory, then Light Sport is truly brain dead; and it’s only a matter of time before everyone knows it.

Being an “Auburn Astronaut”: The Apollo 16 Launch Trip

I got an e-mail inquiry this week asking if I had been one of the three Auburn students who launched some model rockets in honor of Apollo 16 carrying Auburn-grad Ken Mattingly to the moon. Indeed, I had; in fact, I had put the whole thing together. Here’s the response I wrote back to the person sending the inquiry. My response and the accompanying pictures tell the tale. (The inquiry was made to support building this great website on Apollo 16 you can see at: http://www.apollo16project.org.)

Hi Rob,

Well, sometimes it takes someone else to make you go back and have you look closer at what you’ve got.  When I checked out the launch breakfast video and saw the front page of the paper, I immediately recognized it.  I had brought a copy home as a launch day souvenir.

A close up of a newspaper

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Had to dig it out and find the article you sent me.  Not sure if I hadn’t seen it or had forgotten it was there.  I think I do remember that I had seen the coverage but apparently forgot about it.  Obviously, the video hints that Mattingly had seen the article before he launched, something I had never suspected might have happened before now.  Which makes me wonder if when he got my resume from an Auburn classmate (Fred Martin) decades later if he realized it was the same guy who’d been at his launch.  Mattingly forwarded it down to Frank Hughes who was the Training Division Control/Propulsion Branch Chief.  Frank and I talked for a year and a half or 2 years while I finished out my hitch in the Navy (jet engine mechanic at first but finished as an F-14 RIO…which helped me get the training job).  So, I’m not sure where you saw a bio but I worked as a crew trainer from 84-94 teaching shuttle flight control and propulsions systems with a specialty in ascent, ascent abort, and contingency abort (2 and 3 engine out) at the end.  (I got to work quite a bit with John Young doing the contingency abort work, and again some when I returned to NASA in 97 and went to a space shuttle flight operations safety job.  John used to drop by my console in the Mission Engineering Room and as “Are we safe?” which I took as his point that spaceflight was not a “safe” business, of which we were very aware.  Our job was just to ensure everyone understood what the risks were and to yell when we thought the risks were getting out of bounds. I helped him devise what was termed “TAL delay” late in the program. i.e., how to do it was my idea.  There’s more on this and the abort stuff on my You Tube channel, “Shuttle T-Zero”: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRCzXu3cYzuUQhrbKoLzWDA

To get back to the launch trip, I have attached a couple of private photos for you. These were taken out on the KSC causeway where we got using a car pass for the launch.  I lost touch with my partners in crime after this event.  I think that’s Ronnie Baldwin standing next to me and Jack Gentle is the blond curly haired guy in the background.  Believe Ronnie had a career with Alabama DOT from what I can see on the ‘Net but have no idea about Jack and where he went after.  I have also attached a photo of Mattingly with the Saturn V I built and flew (not too well, I might add…had an engine not ignite) and the plaque I got from the NROTC unit.  The whole trip came about because I saw nothing happening with the school to make hay of what I thought was a great thing, so I put together our little group and the idea of a model rocket launch as our form of fireworks and talked to the Commanding Officer of the NROTC unit to get something from them.  Both of those items were given to Mattingly when he got home; copy of the letter attached.

I got busy with getting my feet on the ground when I got to NASA and never introduced myself to Mattingly, something I wished I’d done (along with seeing Armstrong several times and not introducing myself as a fellow VF-51 member).  And I was always so busy and having so much fun with John that I never mentioned I had been at his launch or seen if he knew anything about our Auburn gang.  It’s only been in the last few years where I recognized how much my Auburn University connections had played a role in my spaceflight career (and I worked with Jan Davis and Jim Voss…both Auburn grads…and Jim went to the same high school I did…Opelika…but moved on before I got there and so I didn’t know it until after we had worked together).  I put together a presentation on that which I gave to the AIAA student chapter last year.

There’s another interesting connection at play here attached to the newspaper article I noticed this morning.  There’s a quote from Henry F.J. Cooper who would later write a book detailing the training of a shuttle crew. He covered STS-41G which was my first mission as a solo Control Prop instructor in a book titled “Before Liftoff: The Making of a Shuttle Crew”.  I’m in there, of course, though I have a few choice words about a caption he put into one photo that was a bit off base from several aspects.   The book is out of print but you can find some used copies stil floating around on Amazon if you’re interested.  Other than my complaint about the caption, I consider it an accurate and highly perceptive account of the actual events.

I need to get on to work this morning (remotely for the JSC Flight Safety Office), so this is all I have time for today; but if you have any more questions or want to tag up on the phone, let me know.

Fighter Tactics for the Grocery Store

For use in this Era of the Coronavirus:

  1.  Know Your Enemy: What it is; How it attacks: Where you’re likely to be vulnerable; How to defeat it.  NOTE: Your enemy is not the people around you, though they are the unwitting hosts for this weapon.  Keep your distance; and, remember, speed is life!
  2. Know Your Mission: Know what you’re after; Know where it is and how to get there; Have a plan for getting out
  3. Arm up:  Masks or bandanas and gloves on: Hand sanitizer or disinfectant in vehicle, soap stations at home.
  4. Launch and Execute:  Drive safely so accidents don’t put you and others at risk; once at the store, get in, get your stuff, and get out.  This is not the time to stand ponderingly so that you and anyone trying to get past you is forced to spend long periods inside the “danger zone” (6 feet).  
  5. Keep your Head on Swivel and Your Speed UpDon’t let your bogies cut you off; Plan your routes; Avoid close passes as much as possible; If you must go head to head, be sure you’re in burner, don’t take any shots, and bug out!
  6. Get your loot and check out as quickly as you canBe courteous but don’t stop to tell the checkout clerk what your week has been like.  Get your loot, thank the people who risked helping you, and head out the door as quickly as possible, observing Note 5.
  7. Recover and perform postflight checks:  Remove gloves before entering vehicle and dispose; use hand sanitizer immediately upon entering.  Once home, unload your vehicle as quickly as possible.  Dispose of or clean/disinfect protective gear as you remove it, touching it as little as possible.  Immediately wash your hands for twenty seconds.  Perform post-flight cleaning of any groceries as detailed by health experts. Remove clothes and wash if motivated.  Relax.  Enjoy your haul, and hope you live to fight another day.

When The Force Was With Me

May the 4th is the “May the Fourth Be With You Day”, a celebration of all things Star Wars.  I have always loved the movies (at least, the first three) and like young Luke I wanted to be a Jedi, among other things.  Maybe you don’t believe in The Force or things like serendipity.  I am here to tell you that, whether you believe or not, I was touched by the Force and directly by Star Wars in a way I could not have anticipated in a million years.  This is the story of when and how that happened, a story of adventure, and friendship and serendipity, something that seemed to mark my F-14 career.  

In April of 1982, I was a F-14 Radar Intercept Officer in VF-51 (the Screaming Eagles, the oldest squadron in the Pacific fleet and the fleet squadron that had hosted Neil Armstrong, whom I idolized),  and the squadron’s Public Affairs Officer (PAO) when we sent a small cadre of aircraft to NAS El Centro, California to participate in a Pacific fleet air-to-air gunnery competition. For the days (not counting a day to transit in and one to transit back out and back to Miramar), we flew at least one hop a day and sometimes two, each flight lasting only an hour, to shoot the Tomcat’s 6000 rounds per minute 20mm Vulcan cannon at a rectangular canvas banner with a big red dot in its center as it was being towed by another aircraft.  RIO’s typically don’t get trained on such things, but I had personally flown the “squirrel cage” pattern from the front seat of a T-2 many times, so I knew it’s in and outs.  I was crewed for these gun hops with Stan O’Connor; and I always loved flying with Stan; he was not only extremely capable (as he proved during this competition) but he always appreciated what his RIO would bring to the table, and that included here.  I knew we were getting a lot of hits, but I couldn’t know we would win the whole thing (and I’m talking the whole Pacific fleet competition) until later.

A gun banner as it appears in the ai
A Vf-51 crew counts the hits on a banner. Buzz Johnson, the squadron commander, is walking across the end. Stan is the really tall guy standing on the right with his hair blowing in the wind.

During one of the days we were there, I got a telephone call from the station PAO who said that a Star Wars movie sound crew wanted to come out and take some recordings of our operations and aircraft and would somebody come escort them.  I wasn’t flying that day, and I was the PAO, so I dutifully grabbed my camera bag and ran out to the flight line to meet them.  Along with the station PAO were two guys named Gary Summers and Ben Burtt who were hauling all their recording gear on their backs.  

The station PAO couldn’t resist getting a photo of me explaining to Gary Summers what they were seeing and what we were going to be doing, especially considering the very personal “callsign” I was wearing.

Me and Gary Summers.

I escorted the two of them over to one of the aircraft we were loading up and took this picture of them recording it. Garry Summers is on the left, and that is Ben Burtt on the right.

Gary (left) and Ben (right) record the sounds of a VF-51 crew loading our guns.

They also recorded an aircraft starting up for a hop and went out to the runway with another escort and recorded an afterburner takeoff.  When they got back, they shared with me that the sound levels from the afterburners had saturated their equipment, and they didn’t think they’d get anything useful from it. 

While they had been out there, I purchased a couple of squadron patches (a VF-51 logo and an F-14 “triangle” patch we wore on our flight suits’ or jackets’ right shoulders) and gave a set to each of them.  I mentioned I had bought them for them and if they had any spare StarWars patches, I’d love to have one in return.  They didn’t have anything like that with them (but much later that Ben Burtt would actually follow up and send me something), but they mentioned they were filming a Star Wars movie just down the road (toward Yuma), inviting me out and telling me how to get there.

I didn’t have a car, but my good buddy Doug Blum did.  (He had driven out from Miramar.) So, a day or two later, with no idea of what they were doing or what we might see, Doug and I quietly got in his car and drove down the highway, turning off onto a non-descript dirt road that seemed to wind nowhere out into the desert.  We rounded a bend and this is what we saw as well as some “no entrance” signs.  We pulled over just outside them to try not to draw any attention, though I was ready to say we had been invited out and throw out celebrity names (Ben’s or Gary’s) if we got challenged. 

Our view of Jabba’s Desert Barge in the desert near Yuma, AZ.

At the time, we had no clue what we were looking at.  As you can see in that shot, there wasn’t any activity.  

We started seeing folks milling around in the next half hour.  

People start showing up.

They were gearing up for something.

Starting to look more like a film set…
Actors and film crew get visible…

I was shooting these pictures using an Olympus OM-10 SLR and a telephoto lens.  We were too far way to hear much, but it was obvious they were about to start shooting. 

Just before the shot…

The set got really quiet.  We saw a male and a female swing off the barge on a rope, heard a bell ring, and then heard the crew start clapping.

Luke swings off with Leah and just hangs there…

After we saw the movie, we would realize we had seen part of the climatic scene where Luke rescues Leah from Jabba the Hutt’s barge.  In this last shot, you can see Luke, Leah, Chewbacca, Lando, and (should be) Han.  

But back then, we couldn’t put it in context.  And we had spent a couple of hours out there and only saw them shoot one thing.  It was going to take a looonnnggg time for them to shoot an entire movie at that pace, and we went back to El Centro unimpressed.

What we had seen and how it all lined up I wouldn’t come to understand until over a year later.  We were deployed on the USS Carl Vinson when the movie was released as “Return of the Jedi”.  (The movie had been originally titled “Revenge of the Jedi” but rumor had it that someone decided that Jedi’s didn’t take revenge so the name didn’t fit.) Our voyage had started on the east coast of the United States, taken us into the Caribbean and then across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean (where Doug died in night time aircraft accident; see my blog entitled “Night Flying”), back out into the Atlantic and around the horn of Africa to drill holes in the Indian Ocean while standing guard in the Persian Gulf with an eye on the shores of Iran (among other places).  At the end of a couple of months in the I.O., the ship was headed to Perth, Australia for shore leave when I got assigned to a detachment at NAS Cubi Point in the Philippines.  Each squadron on the ship had one or more spare airplanes stashed there and each squadron would rotate one pilot or aircrew to keep the airplanes exercised so they could fly out to the ship if needed.  So, I was sent out on a COD to Diego Garcia where I spent a couple of days before picking up a ride in a C-141 that took me to Clark Air Force Base.  After a tiring night getting through Philippine customs, I rode a bus through the jungles and hills to Cubi, set up on the outer edge of the city of Olongapo, unofficially known by most sailors as the “adult Disneyland of the free world”.  I’ll leave it up to the reader to figure out or find someone who can tell you why that was.

I spent a couple of months there flying in VF-111 and VF-51 F-14’s with Doug Law (VF-111) and then Corey Glab (whom I had crewed with in VF-51), getting to know the night life in the town, and talking on the phone and via mail to a contact at NASA’s Johnson Space Center where I was trying to get a job.  “Return of the Jedi” hit the islands as the ship grew closer and my time there was coming to an end.  There was a kiosk set up in Olangapo where the proprietor would sell copies of first run movies on Beta video tape for around twenty bucks, and I was asked to go see what I could do about getting a VHS copy of the movie.  I knew I would pull off quite a coup if I could get it done.  So, I went out into town and “talked” (by offering him cash above and beyond his regular price) the proprietor into seeing if he could get me a copy and put it on VHS instead of Beta.  A couple of weeks later, it was done, just in time for me to toss my prize into my duffle bag stuffed into spare space in the rear of the canopy.  As long as we didn’t blow the canopy or eject, it was certain the movie would get on board.

The night we sat down to see the movie….and we would be the first people aboard the ship to do so… we watched a grainy but discernible picture that had this strange habit of panning left and right occasionally to pick up things of import.  It was pretty obvious how they had gotten us the film; they had smuggled a video camera into the theater and simply shot the whole thing.  Since the resolution of a typical TV screen back then was a lot less than that of 35mm film, the camera couldn’t pick up the whole screen, and hence the panning to bring it all in was necessary.  But we didn’t care; we were watching the newest Star Wars movie and that was all that mattered.

Later in the movie, when there was a close-up of Luke on the screen, the black image of a fly crawled next to Luke’s face and he didn’t flinch.  I quickly realized the fly was not part of the movie but was actually crawling on the screen Luke was being projected on.  And suddenly I knew how they had gotten a copy in VHS and why the picture was sooooo grainy; they had shot a copy of the movie using a Beta format video camera, then played that on a TV, while re-recording it with a VHS format video camera.  Nothing if not ingenious… But, again, it didn’t matter.  We had a copy of “Return of Jedi” and no one else did.  You see, movies were circulated among the squadrons for entertaining the troops, and each week a different squadron rotated to the top of the stack and got first pick before rotating down to the bottom.  I never saw the copy of the movie I got after we saw it; my impression was that for weeks after that the squadron had traded it off to the other squadrons for the right of first pick.

I left the Navy some months after that and did get a job training astronauts at Johnson Space Center.  About a year later, I got a letter in the mail from Ben Burtt; he had tracked me down and sent me a letter and two patches labeled from “Revenge of the Jedi”.  Somehow and regrettably, that letter and the patches have gotten lost; but it said a lot about Ben Burtt, and to this day, I appreciate the trouble he went to just to be courteous.

Looking back on it now, I am so grateful for what happened and that I got to be a part of it.  It was all given even more import when Doug died during a late night flight in the Med (See my blog “Night Flying”.). Oh, and there is one other thing…when you watch “Return of the Jedi” and you see the scene when Han, Luke, and Leah are jumping to light-speed in the stolen Imperial shuttle, listen closely to the sound of the shuttle’s engine spinning up; I’m fairly certain it’s the sound of an AWG-9 radar getting ready to slew from stop to stop as it performs its Built-In Self-Test before a crew takes it out on a gun hop.

Low and Fast – No Good Will Come

On two occasions, I have observed a local pilot with a very distinctive aircraft buzz buildings, aircraft, and people. One of them was while sitting in front of my hangar at Pearland Regional. I saw him sidestep right on runway 14 to overfly a hangar at less than 100 feet AGL to pass near a man and woman from a Citabria that had been in the pattern in front of him and stopped at the fuel pumps for gas. (See “Pushing the Margins”). The second incident was at a local airport where we and the other pilot had gone for lunch. We were taxiing out when he was taking off; and as he lifted off, he immediately rolled left to buzz the restaurant full of people behind us (and cockpit video in my airplane captured the liftoff and the beginning of his turn). Not only that, but he had done it with several of his family members in his aircraft. Why put a whole lot of people at unnecessary risk for the sake of ego and a thrill?

You can’t hang around Pearland Regional without seeing, sooner or later, RV’s or warbirds making high speed passes down the runway, often with smoke on. I actually have no problem with that on occasion but really wonder about a pilot who cannot land without “making a low pass” first.

I get it that flying is a lot of fun; and sometimes that kind of flying is a lot of fun. But when you take it to extremes and/or are putting other people at undue risk with your behavior, sooner or later, no good will come of it.

The blog title paraphrases the title from an article I am about to introduce which was written by a fellow pilot and ex-Navy A-6 Bombadier/Navigator (B/N). It is posted in Air Facts and is his cut on the practice of flying low and fast in our airplanes. While flying low and fast was the bread and butter of the A-6 community in particular, every tactical aircrew is trained to do it and at some time has done it. Most of the time, it was part of or solely in support of a mission, but I would be lying to say that sometimes it was not fun. And dangerous as hell. His article discusses both the safety and legal aspects of the practice; and I consider it something all pilots might want to chew on: “Low and Fast- A Bad Combination” by Jeff Edwards.

Isn’t Side Stepping Straight-Forward?

You’re on base leg and you notice a white Cessna sitting at the hold short for the landing runway.  As you round the corner and enter short final, the Cessna taxies forward to take the runway.  You immediately hit the throttle, pull the nose up to the horizon to accelerate and then raise it slightly to climb as you do, raise the flaps a notch, and announce on the radio that you’re going around.  You’re about to overfly the conflicting aircraft; so, in the name of safety, you decide to sidestep.  But which way do you go?

I overheard a debrief where this was being discussed and the student was being told that he could pick either side. And that seems to be borne out by this statement from the Airplane Flying Handbookon page 12-18: “If the go-around was initiated due to conflicting traffic on the ground or aloft, the pilot should maneuver to the side so as to keep the conflicting traffic in sight. This may involve a shallow bank turn to offset and then parallel the runway/landing area.”   The direction of the sidestep…indicated by the shallow bank turn…is not specified.

What I had been taught and always understood was that you sidestepped to the right.  I still believe that to be the best move for a couple of reasons.  First, most pilots sit on the left side of the cockpit in this country, so sidestepping to the right generally gives one the best opportunity to observe the conflicting traffic.  But a better reason is what FAR 91.113 (f) says about what’s legal when overtaking another aircraft: “Each aircraft being overtaken has the right of way and each pilot of an overtaking aircraft shall alter course to the right to pass well clear”.

I found a forum discussion where another CFI claimed that the rule applied only to actions taken in flight and therefore didn’t apply in the pattern.  I could buy that if it weren’t for this quote from Advisory Circular 90-66B “Non-Towered Airport Flight Operations” : “Throughout the traffic pattern, right-of-way rules apply as stated in § 91.113.”

Standard traffic patterns at non-towered fields use left hand turns; side stepping to the right puts you on the side opposite to the direction the aircraft will turn if it is remaining in the pattern.

Of course, Advisory Circulars are not regulatory in nature and only provide recommended practices.  But it shows you what the FAA thinking is.  Doing something else may be perfectly fine but it also may subject you to a violation.  I have read of cases where pilots were prosecuted for overflying..buzzing another aircraft, specifically..and they quoted the overtaking provision I quoted as rationale for prosecution.

The other thing to note is that the Advisory Circular applies to non-towered airport operations.  While I’ve never had a controller issue me a go-around command with a sidestep direction, if they give you one, you are under an obligation to do as commanded unless you are unable for some reason. 

But whatever you do, don’t overfly another airplane on the runway.  The FAA considers it bad form; and it could ruin your day if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Aerodynamics for Pilots

Problems with teaching aerodynamics to pilots or STEM students have been systemic for years; from my perspective it started with a high school physics teacher’s group that started pushing for “Newton only” educational approaches. It’s not that you can’t get there (i.e., from a “Newton only” approach) but that approach is more appropriate for an engineering audience than for the general public. It also illustrates a lack of understanding about the reciprocal nature of the flow field or that Bernoulli’s equation is derived from the analyzation of properties of a particle in a streamline using Newton’s Second Law. Claiming that Bernoulli based explanations, used for years as a simplified explanation for teaching aerodynamics, is wrong is as misguided as claiming that Bernoulli alone is sufficient; they each are incomplete without the other and, in many ways, actually depend on each other. Combined with the pseudo science and incomplete public understandings of technical subjects that often exist and get made popular by the Internet, there is incorrect material now being taught by major pilot education organizations, including AOPA, the Civil Air Patrol and, sadly, the FAA.

The first real move I saw to battle this inaccuracies came in the form of a book published over 5 years ago entitled “Understanding Aerodynamics: Arguing from the Real Physics” by Don McLean and published by Wiley Press. I discovered the book a couple of years ago as I endeavored to wade in to combat what I felt were the technical mis-explanations that gaining traction. My work with McLean’s text has been two-fold: first, to shore up my own understanding of aerodynamics and make sure I had a better handle on the actual physics, and secondly, to find an approach that I get would help me create a “simple-enough” yet technically and physically accurate explanation that would tie together all I had learned over the years. With this blog tonight, I am releasing my first salvo in this effort, a .pdf of a stand-alone presentation entitled “Aerodynamics for Pilots“. (Click the link to download; it’ll take a few minutes as it is a 14MB file.) Like Mr. McLean, I am a believer that every technical subject can be taught at a simplified level most people can understand without making it technically inaccurate, something not always done by groups and organizations dealing with the public and teaching about aviation and spaceflight. While this presentation is aimed at general aviation pilots, anyone who’s interested in how lift is created and how it is used to fly airplanes hopefully will find it educational.

I will eventually put a video version of it up on my You Tube channel; but for now, feel free to download the pdf and read it. If you’d like for me to present or discuss this with your group or class or have any questions or comments, please contact me at: afoster@theandyzone.com.

Night Flying

Author’s Note: This is a long piece…not originally written as a blog but as a story…about 18 years ago. I am republishing it here in memory of my good friend, Doug Blum. The impact of his death on my life can’t be overstated, and I have recently been blessed by being contacted by one of his cousins who was also in Naval Aviation with us some years later.

Flying an airplane at night takes no different skill than flying it in the day. Or so they say. I take out my tiny, black, metal flashlight with its red light lens and shine it on the instrument panel before me to assure myself everything is there. I point the light at my checklist which I remember calls for me to shut the airplane’s door. There is one, it is on the other side of the passenger seat, and I am held so tightly by seat belts and shoulder harness I can’t lean enough to reach it. To prove the point, I fumble my checklist and drop it on the floor in front of the passenger seat. My hand reaches through empty space after it, well short of the goal, to prove I can’t get there. Like I must do with any of life’s problems, I relax, sit up straight in the seat, pull the slack out of the shoulder harness so I can move, and then bend down and fetch my checklist and slam the door shut. I am in my safe little metal cocoon now, ready to go.

For a moment, I stare out the Plexiglas windscreen at an ocean of black, feeling the cool air spill through a small port in the window at my left shoulder. In front of me, the silhouettes of other airplanes, metal ghosts in the night, wait for resurrection underneath a moonless, cloudless sky. Moments ago, before I got in this airplane, I had been looking at a needle-line of trees lit from behind by the orange glow of Houston’s city lights and petrochemical plants. How light it still was here even in the dark! I have seen nights so black I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Could I really call this a night flight? If I were flying out at sea like I used to or out at my favorite home, the desert wilderness of Big Bend National Park, or even in the small town where my Missouri fiancé lives, it would be as dark as sin, whatever that is. But now, now that I am sitting in the airplane trying to let my eyes adjust to the dark, trying to see the small instruments and switches I am about to activate, that self-derision goes away. I point my red light flashlight at the checklist and begin going through its steps…check cabin door closed and latched, seat belts and harnesses fastened, lights and electrical equipment off, parking brake set.

It is time to move on to Engine Start.

Time to move on. That thought is running through my subconscious, for what lies in wait for me on the ground is scarier than any night flight could be. I hope. My life appears to be headed for change. Big change. Change so scary I can’t stand to feel it, even though thinking about it comes easy. The fear is running through me like an electrical charge, held back from any conscious acknowledgement by my own defense, and I know it. I am trying to forget it here, trying to escape its grasp for over an hour, to escape the self-doubt and questioning that always comes with following one’s heart, one’s gut…to lose myself in the air and the preoccupation of flying this airplane. To forget for one hour that without this change, my fiancé and I will go our separate ways, forget the investment in Love and Life we have made with each other, and let go of a special opportunity to grow. An opportunity that my mind is arguing with every step of the way. Linear, logical, my mind solves the world’s best problems in that way, never admitting for a moment that Life itself is neither linear or logical nor can it ever make total sense. I think if it could figure out what it all means, I would be in very big trouble.

Throttle forward one half inch. Master switch on, and the airplane springs to an electrical life. I turn on the cockpit lights and adjust them so I can see the instruments, flip on the electric fuel pump, and listen to its agonized whir. The engine is still hot and doesn’t need priming. I yell “CLEAR PROP!” in my high, breaking voice (not likely to inspire fear or confidence in any pilot or passerby–if there was any) and then hit the engine’s starter. Out the window, the ghostly prop spins, the starter groaning at the load, and the engine growls awake. I pull the throttle back a little so the engine is at the proper idle, pushing my feet against the brake pedals as I hold her tight, not trusting the parking brake alone even though it’s doing the job, and shine my light on the engine oil pressure gauge. Its little needle is in the green. I turn on the airplane’s flashing lights, turn the electric fuel pump off and check the engine fuel pressure. It’s good and the engine is still running. Engine Start is complete.

My headset has been sitting on my shoulders, wrapped around my neck like a pet cat. With the engine safely started, I pull it up over my ears, positioning the headband so it presses comfortably on top of my head, and say “Test, test, test” to no one but me to make sure it is working. At the speed of light, my own voice traverses the distance down the chord, inside the airplane’s avionics, and then back to me. I turn on the radios, check them and the panel that controls them to make sure I don’t talk to some nasty air traffic controller who will yell at me. Not that there are any out here. I am flying out of an “uncontrolled field”, named that way because there is no control tower, and as many things in American society are, out of a reference point to government authority. Here, the pilots handle traffic separation by procedure and radio communication, and we do a good job. Most of the time. There is always the ten percent, as they say who don’t get the word. I don’t care as long as it isn’t me.

Taxi Checklist. Radios are on and set to the right frequencies; the transponder–a device that lets Houston air traffic controllers see me on radar, is on and set to ALT so they know how high I am; exterior lights are on. Reaching down, I release the parking brake, and the airplane rolls forward with no more urging. I push on the right rudder pedal and the airplane’s nose swings right, pointing into the darkness punctuated by the brief, passing white and red lights of cars whizzing down the road perpendicular to and just beyond the end of the runway. I have the airplane’s landing light turned on; the white, one-eyed monster paints the ground in a hazy white ellipse in a vain effort to push back the amoeba of darkness trying to swallow us up. I taxi forward, heading toward a explosion of white light coming from the airport lobby’s long, rectangular windows. The light seems like a blast from another world. Inside that other earth, the green cinder block hangar that is the airport’s business office, I see two young women. One is slender with hair beyond her shoulders, and the other sports a medium build and hair that stops short. The slender young woman looks like she is working behind the counter and is not paying attention to me. The other is staring, out at me, out into the darkness, out into eternity. I wonder what she is thinking about it and then jerk myself back into my moving, threatening reality. This is no time to think about anything but flying.

Turning left, I drive my airplane up to the run-up area, a small ramp of asphalt next to the runway, and spin the airplane around to face parallel to the runway. Setting the parking brake again, I flip my checklist to the next page in pursuit of my next thing to do. The Before Takeoff Checklist. I review it once because I know its actions will come fast and I want to be prepared, a philosophy I wish I had learned before I began practicing life. Which is passing quickly. Soon, it will be gone, and me with it. Then, I’ll probably be wise.

Ready. I run the throttle up. The engine growls, and I can feel the airplane trying to surge forward. I hold her tight, checking oil pressure, oil temperature, fuel pressure, before singly switching off each of the engine’s two magnetos, each firing her spark plugs, and watching the engine rpm drop to a specified tolerance. Within limits. I pull the propeller controller back a little and hear the prop change pitch and see the engine rpm drop and put it all back like it was. The propeller is working, so I check the vacuum gauge (an engine vacuum pump runs some of the instruments), the ammeter to make sure the electrical system is okay; and, satisfied that all is well, I pull the throttle back so the engine comes to an idle. After I check that windows and doors are shut, that my flight controls move like they are supposed to, that my instruments are set, the transponder is on, and turn on the electric fuel pump again, the Before Take Off Checklist is complete. I am almost ready to fly.

Sticking my small flashlight and my checklist under my right leg, I push the throttle up a little and step on the left rudder pedal. Like an obedient horse, the airplane pirouettes, allowing me to search the black skies for the flashing lights of an approaching airplane. Seeing no one, I complete the circle and point my nose and my airplane’s at the runway, its end marked by a small green light on each corner and its edges marked by white lights that draw an outline my mind completes. I turn on the landing light, its small ellipse of whiteness, of surety, outlining little more than what I can hit in the first few yards. The rest of the runway disappears into a black hole.

Any takeoff is a test of faith. As I move out toward the center of the runway, I spin the airplane left as I smoothly add power. Just after the nose is straight down the runway, which I can tell because the white lights are spaced on equal sides of my nose, the engine is at full power. The air is cool, and her power is good. Almost before I know it I am passing 60 mph, flying speed, and I pull back on the yoke and we lift into the air. Runway lights and dark tree lines fall below, replaced quickly by a panorama of lights, mostly yellow and white, that push outward to form a horizon. I make a radio call telling other pilots I am turning right as the altimeter hits 700 feet. Already the houses below me are starting to look like toys. My reality has shifted. I am alone up here. Alone with my thoughts. Alone with my fears. Only my skills and this machine, if it doesn’t burst into pieces before I get home, will bring me safely back to earth.

I push the nose down and pull the throttle and propeller back a bit, climbing very slowly and accelerating toward the southeast. Above me at 2000 feet is the floor of controlled airspace, what we pilots know as Class B. If I fly into it without air traffic control permission, the FAA will do nasty things to me and my pilot’s license. So, I stay below it until I cross the road at the airport’s southern edge and then climb again, knowing that the floor has itself climbed up to 4000 feet. I point the airplane toward a field we use to practice maneuvers, a field that there are no lighted structures on, and whose location I know from experience and blackness. I am truly flying toward a void. On purpose. Lights below mean businesses, houses, and people who might be bothered by my maneuvers even though I can quite legally do them overhead. It’s better not to buy trouble, except in my relationships with women, where I do it all the time.

Those who say that flying at night is no different than flying in the daytime have never done it. I feel strange, out of place, like I am not supposed to be here and am unsure what I am doing. This is called feeling rusty. I am and it shows. While I flew at night only a month or so ago, I have not flown this airplane at night for about 90 days. I feels like it’s been two years. Even the ground looks strange and unfamiliar. I see lights outlining a round tank and a small plant on the east side of a highway below and feel lost even though I know right where I am. I don’t remember seeing that before. It may have been there for years or may have been built last week. In Houston, there is no way to tell. Every square inch of green in the city is being bought, developed, paved over, industrialized, condo-ized, and suburbed faster than you can blink. The Gods That Be will not be happy until every dollar is wrung out, every piece of grass gone, and every chance of skin cancer is yours for the taking. And it is.

Back to my flying. The yellow, muted, lighted stacks of petroleum plants that make up Texas City are in front of me. Beyond, black land fades to blacker water split by a small snake of light connecting to Galveston Island, itself a sliver of lights separating me from the Great Blackness beyond. The Gulf of Mexico. Like another ocean I used to night fly over long ago…

I joined Naval Aviation as a Radar Intercept Officer flying in the back seat of an F-14, then the U.S. Navy’s premiere fighter. “I hate night traps” was one of the first things I heard. I didn’t understand. As a pilot myself, except for the actual “coming aboard”, I knew most of it was instrument flying, something I was good at. I had heard that there was nothing blacker than being airborne during a moonless night at sea, but living in some kind of city, big or small, all my life, I didn’t know I had never seen dark. Until I did. Until we launched out one moonless night under an overcast sky into the heartless depths of what maps and navigation systems said was the Indian Ocean. When we came back, the ship was a small light, swimming in a blackness that had no end, no up or down, no left or right. It just WAS. DEEP. BLACK. FEAR. Procedure and instruments brought us back alive night after night, where we would plunge in less than a second from a world of air and engine noise onto a metal world, bathed in a pallor of yellow light, filled with creatures bearing goggle eyes and multi-colored vests using hand signals to tame the controlled violence that the ship was. Night after night. Most of us came back alive. But then there was Doug. The best friend I didn’t know I had until he was gone…

We were on the U.S.S. Vinson, a nuclear-powered, Nimitz class aircraft carrier, in the Meditteranean sea. The ship was on her first cruise, and we were conducting war games as training and to prove the ship’s mettle. Aircraft launchings and landings were running around the clock. I had come in from a night flight just before midnight and immediately gone to bed. The darkness of sleep swallowed me, chased away too quickly by the sound of the stateroom phone ringing in my ear at 5 a.m.. I had overslept. The squadron duty officer was rousting me on the phone.

“Your briefing has already started,” he said.

“I’ll be right there,” I said, groggily. Wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I slapped on my boots, zipped up my flight suit, and ran down to the squadron’s ready room. We were flying two crews on my event; and though I wasn’t flying with my good friend and usual pilot, Corey, there was an empty seat right next to him. I sat down there and was listening to the briefer talk about an ongoing search and rescue which I thought was part of the games until I heard him say that the crew of an S-3, and anti-submarine twin jet, had spotted debris in the water.

“Hey, what’s going on?” I said, tapping Corey on his arm.

Corey didn’t hear me, hadn’t felt me. He was glued to the briefing. So, I hit him on his arm again. Harder.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“You don’t know?” he said, startled.

“Know what?”

“Doug and Zack flew into the water.”

Navy airplanes start an approach to the ship at night in a way that is very similar to airliners stacked in bad weather at an airport. The ship gives you a holding altitude at a specified point, and you are supposed to be there at a certain time and begin your approach at a certain time. To the second. Most of the time, you hold fairly high. You descend down to only 1200 feet and level off, fly level there until intercepting the ship’s instrument approach, and then begin a slow, controlled approach that takes you to within three quarters of a mile where the pilot uses a visual aid called a “mirror” (we called it “the ball” because it looked like a ball sliding up or down). Doug never got that far.

The story goes that the ship launched them out on their event sometime after midnight. Doug had made it out to his patrol station some distance away when the ship realized they were sailing into fog and they wanted everyone back aboard before they did. So, they told everyone to come back. Earlier than planned. For Doug, that meant he had a lot of gas he had to get rid of. The Tomcat couldn’t take the stresses of a landing with a lot of gas aboard. Since Doug always liked to burn gas rather than dump it, he pushed the throttles into full afterburner, making the run back to the ship faster than the speed of sound. (A helluva a fun thing to do!) He arrived back at the ship when he was supposed to but with too much gas. Slowing down to something like 400 knots (about 460 mph), he began the approach and leveled off at 1200 feet like he was supposed to. But he still had too much gas. So, he asked the approach controller if he could do a couple of three hundred sixty degree turns to buy some time and dump some more gas. The controller approved. At 1200 feet and 400 knots, he did the first to the left and reversed to the right. In the middle of the second turn, radar contact was lost.

No one ever saw or heard from him or his RIO again.

I also never saw their official accident report. We were told that after examining the radar tapes, looking at the speed and radius of turn at constant altitude, that Doug had pulled four g’s in the turn. Such forces and the reversal of turns probably had given the crew vertigo; and in his disorientation, he flew them into the water.

But Doug was too good for that. Flying was his life and soul. And where was the backseater during all that? Asleep at the wheel? I couldn’t buy it. Not as the sole explanation. There was one other thing I never heard anyone talk about, something I and every Tomcat crew has probably personally experienced, which was the fuel dump valve sticking open. That was a problem you had to solve and solve quickly if you wanted to stay airborne. And if cycling the switch didn’t work, the way you fixed it was to open a circuit breaker on a panel forward of the pilot’s right knee. If Zack was focused on the diverging fuel quantity and Doug was reaching forward to open the circuit breaker, he could have easily, unnoticeably, eased the stick forward and knew nothing until he felt the shock, the transition, and he was Moving Toward the Light.

Doug’s death shook all of us. Me, to the core. I was already getting restless, thinking about where to go on my next tour of duty, trying to decide whether to stay in the navy or get out.  was being told my F-14 days were probably over; and Doug’s deaath made me look at how I felt if my life ended the same way.  That possible future felt really empty. I didn’t mind being a warrior but I didn’t want to die as one.  That meant it was time to move on.

Now, eighteen years later and despite the fact that Doug had died night flying, I turn, looking for other airplanes in the vicinity. Seeing none, I slow my airplane down to maneuvering speed and roll into what a “steep turn”. Sixty degrees angle of bank. Two g’s. I practice balancing power, bank angle, and pitch to hold as close as I can to sixty and maintain my altitude, and then reverse in the other direction. Like Doug did, I turn left then right but with much less duress and nothing at stake but proficiency. Happy with my performance, I pull the power back, drop the landing gear, and drop the flaps, slowing the airplane down until a red light and a small horn tell me I am nibbling at a stall, something I can tell from the feel of the airplane anyway. I hold the airplane there, making small turns while I hang on the edge of flyability; and then satisfied with that, I push the throttle to full, slowly raise the flaps, raise the landing gear, and transition back to a full cruise at 145 mph, which is slow for a jet but fast for a light airplane. Turning west, I check my altitude (I’m at 3000 feet. The Class B is at 4000 feet.) and decide to do stalls. Takeoff stalls first. I slow the airplane down to climb speed and then point the nose upward and add power. Once stabilized at climb speed, I pull the nose up, up, up…to get her slow enough to stall. Well above me I see what appears to be a jet heading out of Houston; I turn on my landing light just to let him see me. The nose buffets and drops slightly when I force the airplane to stall; I release pressure on the stick. The stall ends and I adjust the nose to get a climb going again.

That done, I pull the power back and turn back toward my field, which I have flown away from. I slow the airplane down, drop landing gear and flaps, and pretend I am landing. I slow the airplane to a stall, let the nose buffet and drop, recover with full power and raising the flaps and then the landing gear. With my self-imposed, in-flight maneuver series complete, I head west, making my way back toward the airport. I see its beacon and the runway itself dimly, miles away to my north, awaiting my return. I could turn in from here and fly straight toward it; but in deference to flight time and to set up for a recommended FAA entry, I fly the airplane until I am just east of I-45 and parallel it. The airport is hard to see from here because of all the lights around it. Only familiarity allows me to pick it out with just a glance.

A few moments later, I am in the traffic pattern abeam the runway. I perform my landing checklist and fly my descending rectangular course toward the runway. To keep the airplane aligned it once I line up, I am flying with left rudder and right wing down. There is a crosswind, a wind blowing ninety degrees to the runway. Unexpected, but No Big Deal. But why is the runway so dark?

Sometime between takeoff and now, the landing light had burned out. I normally practice no landing light landings and no instrument light landings and no instrument and landing light landings. It was No Big Deal, except I hadn’t planned on this. Another lesson in not being totally in control. Time to adapt.

I landed without a problem, even if a little firmer than I liked. But what did I do now? I brought the airplane to a full stop on the dark runway. Use of a landing light was not legally required. This was the second time in a couple of weeks I was trying to re-qualify for carrying passengers at night, and the FAA required three landings to a full stop every ninety days. The last time I had flown this airplane I had grounded the airplane for a broken airspeed indicator that was legally required. Part of me, the part that wanted to be perfectly safe, maybe the smarter part of me, said to taxi back in, shut down, and call it a night.

I checked the trim while praying there wasn’t a coyote or deer on the runway and pushed the throttle forward and took off again. And again. And again.  The third time I landed and taxied back to the hangars at a pace slower than I could walk, discovering that taxiing on unlighted taxiways had become the hardest part of this flight. I mainly used the light from the red and green position lights on the low wings and a small flashlight to get me back to my dark hangar past the unlit rows of airplanes without hitting anything.

As I buttoned the airplane down and walked back to my truck, I thought about the night flying I still had to do. My upcoming marriage (I hope. I’ve been in a broken engagement. Even though in my soul I know this will happen, my fears still creep in, not content to relax until the fat lady sings, if then). The necessary change in career that it will probably bring. Possible economic ruin. The unknowns of friends, family, and locale. The fear of failure. The fear of the unknown. All those things that night flying represents. All those things I do anyway even when I am afraid. And I usually am. I think it’s a good idea to be.