Thursday, July 21, 2016

To every thing, there is a season...

Well, if anyone is still dropping by here, I have some news. After nearly 12 years and close to 1,400 hours in the air, N631S has moved on to a new home.

I sold our business in Connecticut back in June of last year. At that point, poor '31 Sierra lost its mission. Over the ensuing 12 months I only flew about 20 hours (in contrast with the previous six years or so, when I flew from 120 to 150 hours each year). This wasn't good for the airplane (machinery stays healthy when used) and it wasn't good for me (not enough hours to really maintain proficiency). So, the airplane went on the market, and now its been sold to someone who will fly it.

This blog will stay up for at least a while, as an historical curiosity.

Oh, and I'm thinking about seeking a glider rating.

Meanwhile, I wish tailwinds and blue skies to all the friends I met here.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

As we move deeper into autumn, the atmosphere reaches into its bag of wintry tricks. The weather of last Friday provided an example of what Gordon Lightfoot called "the witch of November".

The driver was a deep low sited over northern Quebec that was wrapping up an impressive cyclonic flow. In the northeast and mid-Atlantic states a low level jet of air paralleled the associated cold front and furnished truly impressive winds aloft.

This wasn't an unforecasted surprise. The system could be watched for days as it crossed the continent and the meteorological models did an accurate job of predicting where all the pieces would be at the end of the week. Thus, I knew by mid-week that my usual trip from Connecticut to the DC area was seriously in doubt.

At left, a depiction of the wind field at 6,000 feet for about 20Z on Friday afternoon. You can see that the wind from the southwest was predicted to be about 60 knots over southern New England, falling off to 50 knots over northern New Jersey and "only" 40 knots over eastern Pennsylvania. If I decided to fly at that time I could expect (based on a true airspeed of about 135 knots) to achieve about 75 knots over the ground for the early part of the trip, and maybe as much as 95 knots as I approached Reading. I didn't think that would be any fun.

For what is usually about a 2 hour and 20 minute trip, the very accurate algorithm at FltPlan.com was predicting an enroute time of over three hours:

And just to complete the picture, the Friday morning Terminal Area Forecast (TAF) for Bridgeport was a bit sporty:
KBDR 011143Z 0112/0212 21018G35KT 5SM -SHRA BR SCT010 BKN020 
TEMPO 0113/0115 23025G40KT 3SM SHRA
FM011600 23014G25KT P6SM VCSH SCT020 SCT030 BKN080
FM012000 24012KT P6SM SCT050 
FM020100 VRB05KT P6SM SCT050=

For the time I'd consider departing, showers with gusty southwest winds would be on the menu, and the winds aloft would still be very strong. The good news: for the overnight period (after 01Z) there would be light, variable winds, good visibility and only a scattered cloud layer around 5,000 feet.

Hey, it's only wind. No convection in the forecast, freezing level up around 9,000 feet. I could make the flight. But as the wise adage says, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should." I decided to opt for a "Dawn Patrol" departure early on Saturday morning.

The forecast for 12Z Saturday morning showed the deep low moved off to the north, the cold front with its associated weather offshore to the east and a weak secondary cold front approaching from the west. I filed for an 0930Z departure (5:30 AM local) and asked for routing over JFK and south across New Jersey.

With the departure of the weather to the east and north, the winds aloft moderated quite a bit. From the depiction at left, the winds at 6,000 feet over New England and down to the mid-Atlantic were forecast to be mostly westerly at about 25 knots by 12Z. A lot better! So I set an early alarm and got myself to the airport by about 5:20 AM.

Now, fltplan.com was anticipating a half-hour less time enroute than the previous afternoon. However, I was disappointed (but not particularly surprised) to learn, when I queried the system before going out to the airplane, that ATC had assigned the usual eastern PA routing rather than the coastal route I'd requested. That would probably add 10 or 15 minutes, and it would force me up to 8,000 feet where I'd have to be careful about icing in clouds.

I seemed to be completely alone on the field. The control tower was closed until 6:30 AM. I pre-flighted N631S in the dark, and checked the weather. The automated weather system was reporting this:

KBDR 020952Z AUTO 02004KT 10SM BKN075 11/08 A2967=
A light wind from the northeast, good visibility under a broken ceiling at 7,500 feet. I started the engine and taxied to the hold short line for Runway 6. From there, I called New York Approach: "November 631 Sierra, on the ground at Bridgeport, looking for my IFR clearance to Victor Kilo X-Ray."

The approach controller read my clearance, asked which runway I'd be using, and released me for departure. N631S's wheels were off of the runway at 0957Z. After takeoff, she had N631S and I climb to 6,000 feet and headed us west. Soon we were transferred to the next sector and that controller said, "Skylane 631 Sierra, climb and maintain 8,000 feet."

Thinking there was no harm in asking, I said, "New York, 631 Sierra wonders if there is any chance for 6,000 as a final altitude."

The controller replied, "No, that's an 8,000 foot route. I can let you stay at 6,000 for another 10 miles but then you'll have to climb to 8."

I responded, "Thanks for that. I originally filed for 6,000 on another route; I was thinking there's a bit less headwind at 6.'

There was a pause. Then, "31 Sierra, did you file for a DIXIE route?" I said "Yes" and she replied, "Let me see if I can work that out for you. Stand by."

In less than a minute, the controller came back with, "Skylane 31 Sierra, we're working on a route for you. For now turn left to heading 190, vector to Kennedy, and I'll have your new route for you in a couple minutes."

Have I mentioned that I love Air Traffic Controllers? I thanked the lady profusely, and by the time I was across Long Island Sound and over Queens, she had an excellent clearance for me: radar vectors to DIXIE V16 ENO V374 OTT thence direct to destination. Trust me...that's a good one. The next controller put N631S and I direct to JFK and then direct to DIXIE. South of JFK the ceiling lowered a bit so we were in clouds at 6,000 but the air temperature was well above freezing.

New York handed me off to McGuire approach and I requested a descent to 4,000 feet hoping for a bit less wind (and hence more ground speed) and a better view below the clouds. That all worked out nicely and our passage through Atlantic City and Dover airspace was uneventful. Soon I was talking to Potomac Approach. Almost home!

Potomac said, "Advise when you have the weather at VKX." I said, "Wilco" and tuned a radio to the frequency for the automated system at Potomac Airfield. Three clicks on the push-to-talk switch gets you the weather at the field. But to my dismay, the robotic voice reported "Visibility one-half mile." Rats! VKX is in a small valley, and sometimes the fog does linger there. Getting back to the approach controller, I advised him of the situation and said I'd like to go have a look, and if conditions really were prohibitive for landing I'd have to divert or go hold somewhere. He said, "You can expect that."

Soon, I heard the Potomac controller say, to a pilot I couldn't hear, "Thanks for the pilot report." Then to me, "631 Sierra, did you hear that?" "Negative," I replied.

"A pilot who just departed from VKX said that it isn't nearly as bad as the automated system is saying." Great news! I said, "Thanks for that, I should be in good shape then." And I was. The photo at left was taken from the taxiway as I exited the runway after landing at 1210Z (2:13 enroute). As you see, there were just a few wisps of ground fog.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Review: "Understanding Air France 447" by Capt. Bill Palmer

In a recent radio interview, a doctor described a procedure followed in many hospitals when a patient dies. The attending physician stands before his peers and presents the case – what symptoms were seen, what actions were taken, what results were observed, what errors were made, what needed actions were omitted, what lessons were learned, what changes ought to be made. Discussion ensues. The process is, literally, deathly serious as the cost of the knowledge gained is someone's life. This learning process is called "Morbidity & Mortality Rounds".

This process came very much to mind as I read Capt. Bill Palmer's excellent "Understanding Air France 447". In this case, aeronautical sins of commission and omission were committed. Fatal results ensued. 228 people died. Attention must be paid.

Perhaps in a more just world, the Chief Pilot at Air France would have come forward with a book that covers this ground. Of course, some combination of legal trepidation and organizational pride will preclude that from happening and so Capt. Palmer has stepped into the central role. By his deep expertise in the systems and behaviors of Airbus aircraft (and the A330 in particular), he is highly qualified to do so.

Although Capt. Palmer clearly cares deeply about safety, this is not a passionate book. It is, rather, a thorough, methodical and ordered presentation of the facts and circumstances with a minimum of inference. Conclusions are drawn when justified by evidence; possibilities are suggested only if supported by the record.

The author starts us off with an outline of the chronology of the event, the basic biographical data of the flight crew, and an overview of the operational environment that prevails on these long flights across the lonely South Atlantic. He reviews the adverse weather conditions that the flight encountered. We learn about the icing-related failure modes of the pitot-static system that in all likelihood caused a temporary loss of all airspeed data, precipitating the cascade of events leading to loss of the aircraft. A clear and helpful description of the Airbus' fly-by-wire system, its control laws and ancillary systems gives the reader a basis for understanding the events that follow with frightening speed.

At 02:10:05 UTC on 1 June 2009, due to absence of airspeed data, the autopilot on A330-200 aircraft F-GZCP disconnected, returning control to the Pilot Flying (PF). There was nothing else wrong with the aircraft. And yet, four minutes and 23 seconds later, the Airbus smashed into the unyielding surface of the ocean below. To aid in understanding how this could have happened, Capt. Palmer divides the period from autopilot disconnect to impact into four phases – three only seconds long, the fourth just a few minutes. He dissects each phase, examining crew actions and aircraft responses, slowly assembling a tragic picture of inadvertent error and ultimate futility.

As each phase of the event progressed, recovery of control became more challenging and less likely. During the first phase, the airplane was climbing while being subjected to inappropriate control inputs, yet recovery to controlled level flight would have been fairly simple. In contrast, sometime during the final phase the airplane probably became unrecoverable. At any event, approach to recovery would by then have required extremely aggressive measures beyond the experience, training, and probably the imagination of the pilots.

The first eight chapters of the book are concerned with the laying out of facts and the explanation of relevant background. They are the foundation on which the last three chapters stand. These are titled, "The Human Element", "Lessons Learned" and "Going Forward". Here, the author delves into the "Why?" of AF447. He discusses fatigue issues, control mode confusion, mis-understanding of aerodynamics in the cruise environment, and gaps in training. As is usually the case, there is no single "smoking gun" behind this tragedy – each of these factors probably played a role.

In his discussion of "Lessons Learned", Capt. Palmer points to a range of issues:

  • Better understanding of the mechanics of stalls at high-altitude is needed.
  • More refined understanding of the subtleties of degraded flight control laws is needed.
  • More time spent hand-flying in the cruise environment is needed.
  • Adoption of the 'Safe Harbor' concept (a fallback, fail-safe pitch-and-power configuration) is advisable.
  • The programmed behavior of the Flight Directors may have contributed to the accident and should be reviewed.
At the end of his book, the author calls for improvements in the training of line pilots to address these and other lessons and shortcomings. He sums up the situation pithily, saying:
"We must not allow mastery of the Flight Management System to be confused with airmanship."
...and his last sentence seems to be addressed to everyone in the industry who is charged with preparing pilots to take responsibility for the lives of passengers: "We have been warned."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Today at KBDR

Early this morning the bright sun was shining at Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR) and warming the old aluminum bones of some visiting veterans. The 2013 Wings of Freedom tour of WW II aircraft maintained and flown by the Collings Foundation was again in town. The Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress "Nine O Nine", the Consolidated B-24J Liberator "Witchcraft", and the North American P-51C Mustang "Betty Jane" were waiting quietly on the ramp for the day's visitors and admirers.

We are fortunate that there are dedicated men and women who work very hard to keep these old birds flying, helping us to honor the memories of those who went to war in them. And so, a few words about each of these wonderful machines and about their old namesakes...

The original "Nine-O-Nine" was a 91st Bomb Group, 323rd Squadron aircraft that completed 140 missions in Europe without an abort or loss of a crewman.

Today's airplane, s/n 44-83575, was license-built by Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, CA and was accepted by the USAAF on 7 April 1945 – making her 68 years old. Born too late to see combat, she served as an air/sea rescue aircraft and as a transport. Sold into civilian life, she worked for two decades as a fire-fighting aircraft and then was restored to wartime configuration. A serious accident led to a second restoration, but since then she's logged over 1,200 tour stops. Since the unfortunate loss of "Liberty Belle" in 2011, "Nine O Nine" is one of only ten airworthy B-17's in the world.

The original “Witchcraft” was a B-24H, built at Ford's Willow Run plant in Michigan in 1944. She began combat service on April 10th, 1944, flying the first combat mission of the 467th Bomb Group. Over the next year “Witchcraft” flew 130 combat missions, never turned back from a mission, and never had any crewmen injured or killed. Her last mission was flown on April 25th, 1945.

The airplane we see today is B-24J s/n 44-44052. She was delivered from the Consolidated Aircraft Company's Fort Worth, Texas plant in August 1944, 69 years ago. In October of 1944, she was transferred to the Royal Air Force and saw combat in the Pacific Theater. At war's end, the aircraft was abandoned in Khanpur, India, never expected to fly again. However, in 1948 the Indian Air Force succeeded in restoring 36 B-24's, including this one, to operational status – and thereby hangs a tale.

These B-24's served the IAF until 1968 and then were abandoned. 44-44052 spent 13 years in derelict condition until she was discovered by a collector, shipped to England and ultimately acquired and restored by the Collings Foundation. Today she is the only airworthy B-24J and one of only two flying B-24's (the other is a B-24A).

The P-51C that carried s/n 42-103293 was built by North American at its Dallas plant in 1943. That aircraft went to England where it flew for the 370th Fighter Squadron, 359th Fighter Group. There, it suffered substantial damage in a training accident (search on the s/n HERE) in which Capt. Carey H. Brown, Jr. of Monroe, NY was killed. The aircraft was written off on 3 May 1944 and sent to the scrap heap.

After many years, significant parts of the airframe were recovered by a professional aircraft restorer – including the data plate. This allowed the resurrection of 42-103293. When the aircraft was rebuilt in 2002 and 2003 it was completed as a 2 seat version, a TP-51C. This field modification added a second seat with flight controls and instrumentation for training purposes. (At least 5 TP-51Cs were built during WWII for training and VIP transport.)

This Mustang is painted as Col. Charles M. McCorkle's "Betty Jane", that he flew as commander of the 31st Fighter Group in the Mediterranean Theater. Col. McCorkle had 11 confirmed kills, six in the Mustang. After the war, he rose to the rank of Major General, retiring in 1966. He went West in 2009.

Col. Charles M. "Sandy" McCorkle in the cockpit of his Mustang

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: "Blood on the Snow" by S.M. Belser

Allow me a mea culpa in advance, for I am about to bend one of the "house rules" here and offer a review of what is really not an aviation-related book. (I say "bend" rather than "break", as there is an airplane in the book and it performs honorably!) And, to provide Full Disclosure: author S.M. Belser is the keeper of the blog N333C, (see the sidebar) wherein she occasionally posts about her adventures as curator of an old Stinson 108. I've not met Ms. Belser "in real life", but know her fairly well as an online presence and think of her as a friend[*].

So let me give you a two-sentence review:

Blood on the Snow is an enjoyable mystery novel. If you like the works of the late Robert B. Parker – especially his 'Sunny Randall' novels – I believe you will find this work very entertaining.
So, now you can leave if you like. Do go over to Amazon, spring for the $1.99 and download Blood on the Snow to your Kindle or tablet. But if you want to stay with me a bit longer, I'll share some more detail on why I liked the book.
Some authors, it seems to me, forget an important principle that applies to stories with strong central protagonists. That is, that the individual at the center of the tale has to be likable! I've read other independently published novels that were well written and cleverly plotted, but which dealt with an unpleasant main character. This makes it very hard to enjoy the book. (Note, please, that 'likable' is different from 'virtuous'. I actually found Hannibal Lecter to be rather likable.) In Blood on the Snow, Lena Smirnova is a thoroughly satisfactory central character.

Lena is a small-town attorney in independent private practice in the north central US just east of the Great Divide. There are mountains nearby, the winter is long and snow doesn't count unless it's measured in feet. She has some law enforcement experience on her CV and supplements her small town lawyering income with occasional investigations. She's smart and perceptive and persistent, and she moves comfortably through the independent and self-reliant ambiance of the American west. And she does not suffer fools gladly.

To move the plot along (and it moves quickly!) the author calls on Lena's skills as a pilot, a skilled user of firearms, and a former cop who hasn't forgotten anything. In this tale, a grieving couple engages her to look into the death of their son, classified as 'a hunting accident' by the authorities. They aren't buying it. Lena accepts the engagement, starts pulling on threads, and soon finds a much larger set of issues than one not-so-accidental shooting death. To the author's credit, Lena doesn't go into Superhero mode, but methodically involves some really competent law enforcement types, while staying involved to the climax of the case.

This is a well written book. The author has a great ear for the cadences of upper-midwest and mountain speech that gives authenticity to the dialog. Her exposition surrounding aviation, firearms, lawyering and police procedure is effortless and provides verisimilitude. I can vouch for the quality of the aviation stuff and so I trust her on the bullets and badges.

The characters in the 'supporting cast', both good guys and bad guys, are also well realized. Many of them are small-town salt-of-the-earth types, and the author's affection for them comes through clearly. She likes them so Lena likes them, and so, naturally, I liked them.

I mentioned above that I found this book reminiscent of Robert B. Parker's work. I've enjoyed his books for the competent plotting, the crisp dialog and the engaging characters. Blood on the Snow also has these virtues.

Let me say a word about editing. I'd estimate that there are perhaps half a dozen instances, scattered among 300 pages, where I said, "A good editor would've caught that." But on the other hand, I've read tomes that I'd paid $30 for, from major publishing houses, with much higher rates of editing fails. It's really, really hard to proofread and edit your own work, so the solitary independently publishing author is at a disadvantage. These few bumps detracted in no meaningful way from my enjoyment of the book.

I stayed up way too late last evening finishing Blood on the Snow. And I smiled when I noted that on the last page Ms. Belser set us up for a sequel. If Lena is coming back, I look forward to getting to know her better. I hope we don't have to wait too long.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"We'd like the visual..."

Since the unfortunate landing short of Asiana 214 at KSFO on July 6th, there has been much comment on the difficulty that some heavy iron drivers may have when confronted with a visual approach (as opposed to a coupled instrument approach where the automation does the heavy lifting). This would seem not, however, to be a universal preference as the following exchange heard last night near Joint Base Andrews at about 21Z illustrates:

  • Air Force 1: "Potomac, Air Force One is 10 to the west at 10,000 on the FRDMM TWO arrival."
  • Potomac Approach: "Air Force One, descend and maintain 6,000 feet. Say approach requested.
  • Air Force 1: "Air Force One descending to 6,000...and we'd like the visual approach to 19 Right."

They had the boss on board, but with good Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) prevailing, I guess the crew of Air Force One felt confident about handling the visual approach at KADW.

And may I add that I'm proud to share the airspace with them.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Was that you, Sarah?

We (meaning N631S and I) had to deal with some weather on departure from Bridgeport (KBDR) this afternoon – which all went pretty well with the help of New York Approach. Thereafter the trip was routine, until we were south of Baltimore (KBWI). We were direct to Nottingham VOR (OTT), having been given a "heads-up" to depart OTT on a 250 heading and expect the visual approach at home plate (KVKX). We'd even been descended to 4,000 feet. Normal stuff.

That's when the nice controller said, "November 631 Sierra, descend and maintain 2,000, turn right to heading 240." It did sound a bit like my friend Sarah, but I didn't get a cheery, "Hi, Frank" so I don't know.

But at any rate, I smiled. From present position that 240 heading would take me right over Joint Base Andrews (KADW) and onto final for runway 24 at Potomac Field (KVKX). (See the plot at left, courtesy of FlightAware.com.) The wind was fairly strong from the west and 24 was going to be favored, so the shortcut across Andrews easily saved me 10 to 15 minutes. How nice is that? I keyed the mike and said, "31 Sierra hopes you'll pass my thanks along to the folks at Andrews." And that got the response, "We will!"

Visibility was fine, and from over the arrival ends of KADW's runways 1R and 1L I could see KVKX clearly. I reported that, and was cleared for the visual approach and invited to cancel IFR if I chose – which I did. The landing was uneventful.

So...an example of "safe, orderly and expeditious" handling on the part of Air Traffic Control (ATC). Just think, though, about what ATC had to do to save me those 15 minutes. The controller had to "have the flick" to the extent that she recognized, while handling the ongoing flow of air carrier aircraft into Washington National (KDCA), that little N631S would need to wind up on runway 24 at KVKX. She took the time to coordinate with Andrews so that I could be cleared to cross the south end of their airspace. And all of that was entirely on the controller's initiative. She could have just followed the path of least resistance by letting me continue to OTT, turn me southwest for a while and then head me in toward KVKX with a quick, "Report the field in sight." But that's not how she works.

I've heard General Aviation pilots complain about getting second-class service relative to the airlines. In my experience it's just not the case. If you bring your "A" game, and show the controller that you can respond competently, you and your "FLIB" will get professional service. Every time.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


In my last post, I described a bit of a kerfuffle that resulted when the system misplaced my authorization to land at my home airfield, KVKX, lying as it does within the DC Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ). This required that I divert to an alternate airfield outside of the FRZ and I chose Easton, MD (KESN) as my safe harbor. In a comment to the post describing all of this, my friend Comrade Misfit asked, "Why Easton? Wouldn't it have been rather inconvenient to get home from the Eastern Shore if you couldn't have gotten the mess ironed out?"

I saw Miss Fit's comment a few hours ago and since, I've been reflecting on that decision. Why KESN, indeed? I think that the decision involved both conscious and sub-conscious factors that were focused, in the end, on ensuring that the pilot (i.e., me) did not wind up well behind the airplane.

N631S and I have been flying to and fro between the DC area and Connecticut for about five years. In that time, I've diverted at the south end to Manassas (KHEF) twice that I recall, and once to Easton (KESN). At the north end I've had two diversions to Bradley International (KBDL), one to Hartford-Brainerd (KHFD), two to Waterbury-Oxford (KOXC) and one to New Haven (KHVN). In every one of these cases, the diversion was due to weather. Each time I had at least 45 minutes, often an hour or more, to think over what was going to happen. Sure, I flew the ILS Runway 6 at KBDR, but I knew that the probability of making a landing was low, and I had 'Plan B' ready. Last Friday was a wholly different kettle of fish.

Friday afternoon, I was presented with a situation ("We're not going to be able to let you into the FRZ") that required a very short term resolution ("Say intentions"). There was no opportunity for an extended period of reflection and evaluation. It was all about, "OK, Frank, where are you gonna put the airplane?"

The first criterion was to divert to a field outside the FRZ that I was very familiar with. That reduced down to Manassas, Gaithersburg and Easton. Perhaps I could have made Freeway work, but I've never landed there and I'd have only minutes to familiarize myself with it's location and characteristics.

Of the fields I was familiar with, I immediately felt that Easton was the most attractive. From present position, just south of Baltimore, Easton was less than 15 minutes away. I was confident that the problem was some sort of foul-up in getting the right "secret code" in the remarks field of my flight plan, and a new flight plan would resolve the issue. If that was the case the diversion, with the need to file a new flight plan, would cost me an hour. Manassas was, on the other hand, a good 30 minutes away and probably represented at least a 90 minute delay. Gaithersburg would be worse.

What if the problem was something completely different? What if the system had "forgotten" me, and there was no way I was going to fly into the FRZ on this evening? Well, I knew I could rent a car at either Easton or Manassas. The FBO's at both fields are superbly helpful. The drive home to Alexandria from Manassas would be a bit over an hour. From Easton, about an hour and a half. I knew...I've done both.

Given my confidence that a new flight plan entered into the system would resolve the issue, and given that the drive from KESN was only a little longer than the drive from KHEF (if that proved necessary)...then KESN was the right choice for the divert. And that's what I told Potomac Approach I wanted to do.

All of that decision making occurred in about two minutes. Some of it happened at a sub-conscious level. I never really thought about any field that I was not already familiar with. Freeway (W00) and it's ilk were rejected without conscious reflection. I thought of KGAI and quickly passed on it. Manassas (KHEF) got 30 seconds of attention, and didn't compare well with Easton. And that was the end of the story. Easton it would be.

When I told the PCT controller that I wanted to divert to Easton, he was ready immediately with a vector. The GPS told me that N631S and I would arrive at KESN in about 12 minutes. But before half of that time had elapsed, I got the welcome news that the problem had been resolved and I could proceed into the FRZ and on to KVKX.

After I landed and put N631S away in the hangar, and talked to Potomac Approach, I felt fairly good about the whole exercise. I'd had to deal with an unexpected diversion, sort out the options and select a diversion field, prepare for an arrival at an unplanned destination, and then switch back to the originally planned terminus – all in a compressed time-frame. Throughout, I had good help from ATC, but I felt pretty good about my ability to keep all of the balls in the air.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Starring Role in "Security Theater"

Home Plate for N631S and myself in the DC area is Potomac Airfield (KVKX). It's one of the "Maryland 3" airports (along with College Park (KCGS) and Hyde Field (W32)) that reside within the Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), a circle (more or less) of airspace with a 14 nautical mile radius surrounding the DCA VOR. (See chart at left, below.)

I fly from KVKX because it is very convenient to my home in Alexandria, VA. Gaining authorization to fly in and out of KVKX (and the FRZ) required a certain amount of jumping through hoops but once that was accomplished the whole program has been, as they say, transparent to the user. Until tonight.

Here's how it works (and I'm going to confine this discussion to IFR operations. VFR has its own idiosyncrasies.) Whether outbound or inbound, I file an ordinary IFR flight plan by telephone through the Lockheed-Martin Flight Service Station (FSS) in Leesburg, using a toll-free number dedicated to FRZ operations. Sometimes the FSS Specialist that answers the telephone is in Raleigh, but that makes no difference.

I go through the normal IFR Flight Plan sequence with the Specialist and then he/she asks me, "Are you familiar with the procedures governing operations in the Washington, DC Special Flight Rules Area and the Flight Restricted Zone?" I then say, "Yes, I am!" The next question is, "What is your PIN?"

All pilots that have been "vetted" to operate into and out of the FRZ and the "Maryland 3" airports have been issued a Personal Identification Number (PIN). When I give my PIN to the FSS Specialist, he/she verifies it against a master list, and if it agrees with his/her list then he/she will (one fervently hopes) enter certain appropriate remarks into the "Remarks" field of my IFR flight plan. Then, when ATC pulls up the Flight Plan as I approach the FRZ (in the inbound case), the remarks make it clear that I am authorized to enter the FRZ and land at KVKX. It all works very nicely. Except when the remarks aren't there.

Which brings us to tonight, over Baltimore. It had been an uneventful flight down from Connecticut, and I was looking forward, as I crossed over the top of KBWI, to getting home. Then, I got a radio call:

  • PCT: "N631 Sierra, Potomac?"
  • Me: "631 Sierra."
  • PCT: "Uh...just to let you know, there's some sort of problem with the remarks in your flight plan and we're trying to work it out...but we may not be able to let you into the FRZ...so you may want to start thinking about an alternate. For now, continue on your heading and maintain 6,000."
  • Me: "...OK...present heading, maintain 6,000, 631 Sierra."

I continued southbound toward the Nottingham VOR (OTT), and thought about options. Easton, MD (KESN) was the best choice if I had to land outside the FRZ. From there I could call FSS and sort out the problem and then it would be a short flight back home. Then:

  • PCT: "631 Sierra, we're not going to be able to let you into the FRZ. Say intentions?"
  • Me: "I'd like to divert to Easton."
  • PCT: "Skylane 31 Sierra, fly heading 160, direct Easton when able."

I turned to the east and started to gather up frequencies and such for an arrival at KESN (see track above, courtesy of FlightAware.com). Just as I had all of that more or less squared away, the controller came back to me:

  • PCT: "631S, we've got it worked out! Turn right to heading 250, descend to 2,000, vectors for KVKX. And for what it's worth from my end, I apologize for all this."
  • Me: "31 Sierra, right turn to 250, down to 2,000, and no apology needed. I really appreciate you folks going the extra mile to get this cleared up."

The remaining 15 minutes of the flight were uneventful. N631S and I landed at KVKX; I put the airplane to bed in the hangar and on the way out I stopped to give Potomac Approach a call.

  • PCT: "Mount Vernon approach."
  • Me: "Hi, I'm the pilot of N631S; there was some confusion about the remarks for FRZ entry on my IFR flight plan and I'm wondering what went wrong."
  • PCT: "It was an FSS mistake. I pulled up your strip and the remarks weren't there. I know you come down every Friday, so I called NCRC (National Capital Region Coordination) and said 'Where are his remarks'? They didn't have the remarks. I got the supervisor involved and I guess he checked the tapes and he called back and said, 'he's OK, he should have the remarks.'
  • Me: "I guess they went back and listened to the tapes from this morning when I filed."
  • PCT: "Yeah, you filed at 12:08(Z), right? That's what they did. Again, I'm really sorry about all this."
  • Me: "And again, I really thank you folks for taking the trouble to get this squared away."

Have I mentioned that I love Air Traffic Controllers? Tomorrow I'm going to give LockMart FSS a call to see if they have any ideas for avoiding a recurrence of the problem.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


When N631S and I departed KVKX last Monday for the trip north to Connecticut, Bridgeport (KBDR) was reporting a 900 foot overcast that was forecast to improve to 1,500 broken around 9AM local time. There were no NOTAM's related to the ILS, so it looked like a good situation.

By the time we were abeam Atlantic City the overcast at KBDR had dropped to 700 feet and by the time we were over the top of JFK it was down to 300 – which is the Decision Altitude for the ILS Runway 6 approach. But there we were, so we flew the approach to have a look. At 300 feet there was nothing but gray in the windshield and we proceeded to fly the missed approach. Checking back on with New York, we heard the expected, "Say intentions." My reply was "Skylane 31 Sierra would like to divert to Oxford." Oxford was reporting a 900 foot overcast.

The controller said, "Maintain 3,000 feet, fly heading 250, vectors for the ILS 36 approach at Oxford." Which will bring us to the point of the story.

New York vectored us onto the final approach course for the ILS Runway 36 approach and handed us off to Oxford Tower. I checked in outside the Final Approach Fix (FAF) and was cleared to land. As usual, I was flying the ILS with 10° of flaps and about 14 inches manifold pressure. This nicely results in about 95 knots and a 600 to 700 feet per minute descent.

We broke out of the schmoo at about 800 feet; there was the runway. At about 500 feet I pitched the nose up a bit to slow N631S and reached over to move the flap control to the fully down position. And...nothing happened. To my surprise, with the flap control fully down, there was no additional flap deployment at all. The flaps just sat there at about 10° extension.

Oxford (KOXC) has about 7,000 feet of runway and landing with 10° flaps is a non-event. In fact, the landing was excellent...a "greaser" (more on that in a bit). I taxied over to the FBO and tried cycling the flaps. Nothing I did would produce more than 10° of movement. So I waited for the ceiling to lift in Bridgeport (which took about an hour), and flew back down there – executing another non-full-flaps landing on arrival. Which led to the next surprise.

The landing at KBDR was not as pretty as the one in Oxford had been; in fact it was a bit of an 'arrival'. With 10° of flaps deployed and the flap control lever in the fully lowered position, the main gear contacted the runway with a hefty 'thump'...and the rest of the flaps deployed very nicely as I rolled down the runway.

Taxiing to the tiedown, I cycled the flaps up and down and got nothing but 'ops normal'. Lever up, flaps up; lever fully down, flaps fully down. All working the way it's supposed to. Drat! I secured N631S and found Tony the Mechanic in the maintenance hangar. He listened to my story and agreed that there was nothing to be done until the failure showed up again.

So...on Wednesday morning, I went back to the airport, opened up N631S, turned the Master Switch ON, and moved the flap control all the way down. The motor began to run, the flaps deployed to 10° – and stopped! Yay! I promptly secured the airplane and went to find Tony.

"Hey, Tony," I called, "Good news – the flaps aren't working!" This drew a strange look from a couple of other people, and a smile from Tony who said, "Good...we'll pull it in here gently, and look for the problem." I guess that it's only in the world of maintenance that the recurrence of a problem is a good thing and its absence is a bad thing. Pilots and mechanics know perfectly well that the problem WILL return...probably when you really don't need it.

The next morning, Tony reported that the problem was fixed. "I turned the master on, and reached up under the panel and moved some wires and the motor started and lowered the flaps. Aha! Pulled the seat out and got under there. A wire to one of the switches was almost broken but not quite – that's why it was intermittent."

Have a look at the picture. When you lower the flap control, it moves the cam and that closes the 'flap down' switch (green in the picture). As the flaps go down, the follower mechanism rotates the switch mount arm and the position indicator until the switch opens and the flaps stop moving – at the ordered position. (It was a wire to this switch that had failed.) When you're done with the flaps, the cam moves the other way, closes the 'flap up' switch, and the process runs in the opposite direction. They've got clever designers out in Wichita!

So N631S is completely healthy again, I get to land with all the flaps I want, and the fix was easy and fairly painless. One of the joys of curating a 36 year old aircraft, I suppose.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Book Review: "QF32" by Capt. Richard de Crespigny

On last Thursday, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) released the final report from its investigation into the causes and consequences of the uncontained catastrophic failure of a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine that occurred 4 November 2010. The engine in question was at the time occupying the number 2 position on the wing of a Qantas A380 climbing out from Singapore.

The ATSB report is a fascinating engineering document. It covers thoroughly the reasons for the engine's detonation, the nature and extent of the resulting collateral damage, and the very fortunate absence of any significant airframe fire. It does not, however, dwell at any length on the actions and performance of the flight crew during the event and its aftermath. That side of the story is told well by the pilot-in-command, Capt. Richard C. de Crespigny, in his excellent book, QF32. (The title is the Qantas flight number on which the incident occurred.) Capt. de Crespigny provides the reader with both a gripping narrative and a satisfying explication of technical detail. In addition to being a master aviator, the Captain proves to be a gifted explainer.

The author allots roughly the first 40% of the book to telling us about his journey from his youth through his introduction to flying, his training and assignments in the RAAF, his progression through increasingly challenging – and rewarding – flying jobs at Qantas, and (I think, importantly) his founding and nurturing of a successful computer software business. It was a journey that brought him, on that November morning in 2010, to the left seat of an Airbus A380 named Nancy-Bird Walton and to the moment when, four minutes after takeoff and passing through 7,400 feet, he heard a double "Boom!...BOOM!"

Thus began an incredibly intense one hour and 45 minutes of managing a dauntingly complex systems troubleshooting process while nursing a crippled airplane that had sustained an unknown level of damage. If you wanted to specify the perfect aviator to put in charge of these tasks you would design Richard Champion de Crespigny. From the perspective of stick-and-rudder aviating, his experience flying deHavilland Caribou STOL transports and Iroquois helicopters gave him familiarity with taking machines to the edges of their aerodynamic limits. And his intimate knowledge of software design and behavior not only gave him the motivation to understand the Airbus computer protocols at a deep level, but also a well-honed feeling for the ways that software systems respond to degradation and damage.

As fortune would have it there were five pilots on the A380's flight deck that morning – the normal crew of two plus a relief Second Officer, a Check Captain and a Supervising Check Captain. When the Trent 900 'grenaded', taking with it numerous ancillary systems, the resulting flood of messages from the airplane's computers, some logical and some not, kept all hands busy. The author admits to reaching task saturation in the midst of this chaos until (as he puts it), "..I had my epiphany. My mind switched."

"I inverted the logic. I remembered what Gene Kranz, NASA's Flight Director, said during the Apollo 13 mission: 'Hold it! I don't care about what went wrong. I need to know what is still working...' We went back to basics and it became easy..."

From that point, the crew focused on assuring themselves that they had a controllable airplane with minimally functional systems that could safely be landed within the constraints of Singapore's main runway. As they made configuration changes for landing, Capt. de Crespigny disengaged the autopilot and performed 'control checks', a military technique for verifying controllability of an aircraft that has suffered battle-damage. This isn't found in any Airbus manual, but it assured the crew that the airplane would be stable down to the runway.

Runway 20C at Singapore is 4,000 meters long. The author's colleagues on board had calculated that in its damaged condition the A380 would need 3,900 meters to stop if the Pilot Flying executed a perfect touchdown. At the end of a long straight-in approach, Capt. de Crespigny did just that and got the airplane stopped 150 meters short of the runway's end. And that was the end of the beginning.

The big Airbus now sat at the end of the runway, surrounded by emergency equipment. Flammable jet fuel gushed from the perforated left wing. The brakes glowed, nearly white-hot at over 900°C. And the Number 1 engine refused to shut down. The flight was ended, but not the danger.

The decision was taken to not deploy the escape slides for evacuation. The environment outside the aircraft was more hazardous than the inside. So the cabin crew stood by at the armed doors and stairs and ground transport for the passengers were called for. About an hour after touchdown, the first passenger walked down the stairs and to the first bus; the last passenger debarked about an hour later. At last, the tension subsided. It was three hours and 39 minutes since the Number 2 engine had exploded.

In the days and weeks that followed, Capt. de Crespigny and the rest of the flight and cabin crews of QF32 were justly celebrated. Honors and awards were the order of the day. But the author candidly and generously shares his experience with post-crisis psychological reactions to the stressful experience. He sought and received professional help with Post-Crisis Management, and after a couple of months returned to the left-seat on the A380 flight deck.

It's very interesting to compare Richard de Crespigny's experience on QF32 with that of 'Sully' Sullenberger, who famously landed Cactus 1549 in the Hudson River (as described in his book Highest Duty) after losing both engines as a result of bird strikes. To the best of my knowledge, Capt. Sullenberger has never mentioned any post-crisis effects, but his crisis was over within about 15 minutes. Capt. de Crespigny had to operate under extreme stress for over three hours. Soaking in adrenalin for that long has got to have some side-effects.

There are numerous lessons to be taken from the QF32 story. One stands out for me, and it is this: When it all goes pear-shaped, only the attention of highly skilled, highly trained, highly proficient professional aviators stands between the passengers and disaster. Richard de Crespigny and his colleagues proved this. 'Sully' Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles proved this. And sadly, the crew of Air France 447 seem to have proven the converse.

"The Office" of an A380 at FL330 over France on a quiet evening. (Photo courtesy Capt. R. Ch. de Crespigny)

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Summer Fun

Yesterday's trip from Connecticut down to the DC area was sufficiently entertaining to warrant a post here. Also, it gives me an opportunity to again express appreciation for the amazing skill and willing team-effort on the part of the controllers who shepard N631S and me along our route and keep us out of trouble. In this instance, particular kudos go to the folks at Harrisburg Approach and Potomac Consolidated TRACON (PCT).

I'd been watching the weather map for several days and the synoptic picture forecast for Friday afternoon wasn't very nice. A cold front associated with a deep trough was approaching from the West and was forecast to stall along the coast on Friday. Conditions would be ripe for lots of convective activity. Thus, the Terminal Area Forecast (TAF) for Washington's National Airport (KDCA) was unsurprising:

TAF AMD KDCA 281852Z 2819/2918 19010KT 5SM TSRA BKN050CB
TEMPO 2819/2820 VRB30KT 2SM +TSRA OVC030CB
FM282200 25007KT P6SM VCTS BKN050CB  
FM290000 27005KT P6SM VCTS BKN050CB 
FM290100 27005KT P6SM BKN050 
FM290400 VRB03KT P6SM SCT130
FM291600 21007KT P6SM BKN050=
I was planning a departure at about 1930Z, so the period of heavy thundershowers (+TSRA) was expected to be over well before my arrival, but the prevailing weather for the whole evening was calling for thundershowers in the vicinity. The TAF's for intermediate locations enroute looked pretty much the same.

I decided to depart anyway, watch the weather carefully, and if necessary, land before things got boisterous and wait it out – overnight if necessary. Despite the highly convective environment, this was "air-mass" weather, not frontal activity. The organized lines of storms accompanying a front defy penetration, while the more scattered weather in store in this case often offers a way through if approached with an abundance of caution, lots of information and plenty of fuel.

Everything was peaceful for the first hour or so, but westbound, passing Allentown (KABE) and approaching the turn to the south onto V39 toward Lancaster VOR (LRP), the NEXRAD display showed that things would soon become interesting. Allentown Approach handed us off to Harrisburg Approach a few miles east of FLOAT intersection. Checking in with Harrisburg, after the normal dialog involving altimeter settings, I asked, "Harrisburg, Skylane 31 Sierra is wondering what weather you're painting along Victor 39 to Lancaster and then south towards Baltimore?"

The controller's reply was, "Everything looks good as far as Lancaster, then there's a band of precipitation, heavy to extreme, from south of Lancaster and to the northeast about 50 miles."

I then asked, "Have you got a work-around for that band? I don't want to go and paint myself into a corner down there."

This drew a "Skylane 31 Sierra, stand by," which meant that I had him thinking about the problem. After a pause of about a minute, the controller came back to me with, "Skylane 31 Sierra, it looks like after Lancaster, Victor 143 down toward the BRINS intersection will keep you clear of the weather. Then you can go direct Baltimore." It was my turn to say, "Stand by." I grabbed the Low Altitude chart from the seat next to me, quickly flipped it open to the panel depicting Lancaster, found V143 (which departs LRP on about a 248 heading) and traced it to the Southwest, and located BRINS. I compared that with the NEXRAD depiction and then pressed the Push-to-Talk switch. "Harrisburg, 31 Sierra likes the looks of Victor 143 after Lancaster. I think that's a plan."

After another minute or two I heard, "Skylane 31 Sierra, you are cleared present position direct to Lancaster, Victor 143 to HYPER intersection, then direct to Baltimore, direct to destination. HYPER is a little further, you'll probably be able to turn toward Baltimore before you get there." I read that clearance back, ending with a sincere "Thanks very much." Looking at the weather depiction and noting that the storm cells were moving to the East, it appeared that I'd be in the clear all the way down V143 – and that indeed proved to be the case.

Harrisburg handed us off to Potomac Approach and N631S and I motored along Victor 143, skirting the Northwest edge of the weather. The Potomac controller gave me the customary amendment to my routing, "After Baltimore, direct Nottingham then direct destination," and about ten miles short of BRINS he gave me a 220 heading, adding, "Turn east direct Baltimore when able. Just let me know when you make the turn." It looked to me like it would be about 20 miles before that would be a fine idea.

I turned N631S toward Baltimore, still in the clear and keeping the weather well off to our left. About 25 miles West of Baltimore, the PCT controller said, "Skylane 31 Sierra, there's some weather moving in to the South of Baltimore; that direct Nottingham route may not work. I'd suggest you tell the next controller you'll need to deviate to the East to stay clear of that weather." I acknowledged that with thanks, and got "Contact Potomac on 119.85."

After checking in with the next sector I requested a left-of-course deviation for weather avoidance. She replied with, "31 Sierra, do you have weather radar on board?" I said, "31 Sierra has a NEXRAD weather display."

The controller then said, "Go ahead and navigate around the weather to the east. Just let me know what turns you're making." I said, "31 Sierra is going to go from present position on a 160 heading for a while, then I'll go direct Nottingham when able." This drew, "31 Sierra, that's approved."

I kept N631S on the 160 heading for 12 or 15 miles, descending first to 4,000 feet and then to 3,000. When I could see past the weather to my right I turned toward Nottingham and said (in response to the controller's query) that I'd like the visual approach to Runway 6 at KVKX.

As you can see from the picture at left, that was a fairly enthusiastic patch of weather off N631S's right wing. The overhanging cloud shelf was pretty dramatic as well.

And here's a half-minute of video recorded in about the same spot:

A few miles to the south, the way was clear for a turn toward home plate and the landing at Potomac Airfield was uneventful. It took about a half-hour to get N631S put to bed in the hangar, and as I was driving off of the airfield the heavens opened and gave forth an impressive deluge, leaving me thinking that timing is everything.

All things considered, the conditions for this flight were pretty challenging. Good on-board weather awareness (i.e., NEXRAD) was a 'no-go' item but the real essentials were a creative and savvy controller at Harrisburg approach who quickly developed a workable re-route, and a couple of smart, and above all flexible controllers at PCT who made it possible for me to complete the trip safely. My profound thanks to all.

Saturday, June 8, 2013


One of the most enjoyable parts of blog-keeping hereabouts is the curating of the sidebar. That stuff over there on the right, adjacent to the primary content column. The process is fun and it leads to places.

For example...my recent review (rant?) of the biography of Lawrence B. Sperry started out down there in the depths of the sidebar. I had decided to "enhance" the entries on my favorite designers with an appropriate quotation from each, revealed on mouse-over using the HTML abbr tag. A significant amount of Google-aided research failed to provide me with anything memorable from young Mr. Sperry, so I decided to obtain his biography where a nice quote was found. And if you've read the review you know the rest of the story.

I add things now and then. A recent inclusion is the panel showing five recent tweets (or retweets) sourced from my Twitter account. (If you feel like following, that'd be most welcomed.)

So, you're invited to slide on over to the right and poke around the sidebar. If you're moved to offer any comments or suggestions I'd appreciate hearing them (perhaps in a comment on this post). And as always, thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Book Review: "Gyro! The Life and Times of Lawrence Sperry" by William W. Davenport

It has been my practice to confine book review posts to books that I would recommend to a friend as being enjoyable or instructive – or, preferably, both. In that light, the book I'm about to discuss, William Wyatt Davenport's Gyro! The Life and Times of Lawrence Sperry, is troubling. It does indeed present an enjoyable story. And, reading it does prove instructive...but not in the way one usually hopes. The lesson of the book is that some biographies may be works of fiction clad in a thin layer of verisimilitude, and that a healthy skepticism is a useful tool for the reader of history.

I wanted to learn more about Lawrence Sperry, as the stories commonly told about his brief and colorful life consistently rendered him as a fascinating character. What better approach, thought I, than to lay hands on a copy of his biography? This was readily accomplished with the aid of a used book vendor, facilitated by the good folks at Amazon.com. But very soon after opening the book I encountered a warning sign. What does one make of a biographer who, in the Acknowledgements at the front of the work, says this:
"As in every life that has been lived to the hilt, there are hiatuses, documents that have been lost or suppressed, the ambiguities of reality, questions that have not been answered, problems that have not been solved. In such cases, in my attempt to gather up the radiance of a dynamic personality, I have been authorized to indulge in some judicious speculation and have occasionally asserted poetic truths where actual facts were missing." (emphasis added)

I had to read that twice. It took a while for the realization to solidify that the author was saying, "When I didn't have solid evidence to tell the subject's story, I just made stuff up." Really? At this point I went directly to the back of the volume where I found no list of sources and no end notes...just a somewhat sparse index. The conclusion became obvious: nothing in this book can be trusted. Any assertion made by the author is just as likely to be a "poetic truth" as an "actual fact".

Lawrence Burst Sperry deserved better than this.

Some examples illustrate the scope of the problem. The book tells a tale (one can't say "the tale") of the development of the gyro-stabilizer (precursor of the autopilot) for use in aircraft. It would have you believe that Lawrence, with minimal involvement of his father, the noted engineer Elmer A. Sperry, designed, developed and demonstrated the apparatus completely on his own. His native genius is depicted as a perfect substitute for the engineering education he regarded as unnecessary. But other sources cast doubt on this charming narrative.

A biographical memoir on Elmer A. Sperry by J.C. Hunsaker (published in 1954 by the National Academy of Sciences) has this to say:

"As (Elmer) Sperry was tied up with...other activities, he called in his friend Hannibal C. Ford, an extremely clever designer of intricate apparatus. Ford and Sperry together started on the design of a gyro compass... As a sideline they designed a small gyro stabilizer for an airplane..."
This was in 1910. Hunsaker goes on to say:
"In 1913 conditions seemed ripe for resuming the airplane
stabilizer work started but discontinued in 1910. Sperry knew Glenn Curtiss at the Aero Club in New York, got in touch
with him, and arranged to send his son Lawrence to Curtiss's shop at Hammondsport. Lawrence Sperry had already built
and flown his own airplane and later was awarded F.A.I. Pilot's License No. 11.

The Aero Club of France announced an international competition for a safe airplane with a prize of 50,000 francs to be awarded to the winner. Curtiss, in whose flying boat the gyro stabilizer had been tested, persuaded Sperry to send Lawrence to Paris to compete for the prize. The demonstration flight was made in June 1914.

As the plane flew low past the judges' stand the mechanic climbed out on the wing and Lawrence stood up in the open
cockpit raising both hands above his head. This was indeed convincing; nothing like it had ever been seen before. He won the prize."

The patent application for the airplane stabilizer was filed on 17 July 1914 and led to the issuance of US patent 1,368,226. The sole inventor named on the patent is Elmer A. Sperry. In addition, the work to develop the airplane stabilizer was honored with the award of the prestigious Collier Trophy for 1914. One name is engraved on the trophy for that year – that of Elmer A. Sperry.

Was Lawrence involved in, and important to, the project? Most certainly. Was he the driving force behind it? It would seem not.

Another example revolves around the origins of the aircraft type most often associated with Lawrence Sperry – and the one that eventually took his life. Known most commonly as the Sperry Messenger, it got its start in life, according to the author, when:

"Billy Mitchell...wanted an inexpensive, maneuverable little single-seat plane that the Army could use as a training ship for pursuit aviation. This coincided precisely with Lawrence's desire for a single-seater sports plane. He went to his drawing board and designed a small biplane whose lower wing was almost unnoticeable. Delighted with the design, Billy Mitchell ordered three of the planes, the first sports plane in American aviation, for the War Department. This plane was the famous Sperry Messenger; it was Billy Mitchell who gave it it's name." (Emphasis added.)
But other sources tell a different tale. For example, K.O. Eckland's authoritative Aerofiles site says:
"M-1 Messenger, M-1A, MAT (Verville-Sperry) 1920 = Army liaison and utility. Designed at McCook Field by Alfred Verville; aka Engineering Division M-1. Ailerons on all wings. POP: 22 as military M-1 and 20 as M-1A, plus 1 civil sport version that failed to spark any public interest, and the idea was never pursued."
Did Lawrence Sperry go "to his drawing board" and give birth to the Messenger? He absolutely did not. The talented Alfred Verville, working for the Army, designed the airplane and the Lawrence B. Sperry Airplane Co. was then hired to build it. (The Smithsonian, by the way, agrees.)

There are other statements at variance with accepted facts throughout the book. The text includes many instances of direct quotes from conversations where only two people were present and no record could have been made. More of those "poetic truths", I suppose.

The question I'm left with is, "Why?" To what end does the author steal the glory of Elmer Sperry, Alfred Verville and others and assign it to Lawrence Sperry? He had plenty of his own glory as the legitimate inventor of the life-saving gyroscopic turn-and-bank indicator (see US 1,433,102), as developer of major improvements in pack parachutes for pilots, as a central part of the project that developed the first "cruise missile", as a renowned aviator and proselytizer for flying in its early days. And yes, even as the spiritual founder of the Mile High Club (with essential assistance from Mrs. Waldo Polk). Why would the author risk his credibility, with all of this to work with?

Perhaps the clue lies in the use (seen above, in the quoted segment about "speculation" and "poetic truths") of the word authorized. I'd suggest that the author was not free to write his own book. Someone else had to be considered and satisfied. The story that was told had to be, at the end of the day, the authorized version. What a shame.

If you want to learn about Lawrence B. Sperry, go ahead and read this book. Then verify anything of particular interest through other credible sources. That's the only way you'll sieve out the "actual facts" and leave behind the "poetic truths."

Monday, May 27, 2013

5,000 Flags of Remembrance

The Alexandria National Cemetery is just a couple of blocks west of my home in Virginia. This morning it was, as it usually is, peaceful and serene. There are about 5,000 gravesites there; it has long been filled to capacity. But while the rituals of commemoration have shifted to Arlington, remembrance continues. This morning's sun rose on 5,000 flags, one placed at each marker to say to those that rest here (and to those that love them), "We WILL NOT forget!'

As always on Memorial Day, my thoughts turn to my uncle, Tec 4 Edmund J. Peters, Jr., 188th Glider Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division, who fell on 17 February 1945 in the assault on Fort McKinley and rests at the American Military Cemetery in Manila. May he rest in peace.