Saturday, September 26, 2009

Rolling the Dice

It was night, and snow showers were passing through the area. The hospital called me at home. "Can you go to Afton?" Afton is a mountain strip in a deep valley.

I was very familiar with Afton. When I was a 135 (charter) instructor, I used to take new pilots there and say "OK, it may not be legal, but you have to get the antidote out of here or the world will end. Make a plan." The only navaids are GPS and dead reckoning.

They would make a plan for some GPS waypoints to keep them in the valley, and then I would have them fly it. Under the hood. But it was during the day, and I was there to watch out for the mountains.

Tonight it was for real; a patient (they never tell the pilots about the patient, on purpose) in their tiny clinic needed to be flown out of there, tonight. My students did it in a Cessna 182; at least I had the pressurized 414.

The weather was iffy but I remembered that there was a new GPS approach into Afton. I accepted the flight. But then I reviewed the approach chart: "NA [not allowed] at night," it said. Still, the medical team were willing to fly there and take a look into the valley from a safe altitude, like 12,000 MSL. "I'm not going down into that valley for two streetlights," I said. The nurses, who plan to see their families again, agreed. It was a roll of the dice for the patient.

We got to Afton and I set up an orbit high over the valley. The nurses strained to see out the windows. At first there was nothing down there. Then there were a couple of streetlights. And then there was the airport! We spiraled into the valley, staying over the airport and away from the unseen hills, and landed. The crew rushed off to get the patient while I stayed behind, sweeping the snow off the wings, even though it wasn't sticking.

It was VFR when they got back, but it was still dark, too. We loaded the patient, a teenage girl with severe breathing problems, into the airplane. I took off, and followed the departure procedure that I had drilled into my students. I didn't need a hood because there was nothing to see. I put the weather radar into terrain mode; that way it showed me the mountains that I needed to miss. I held the heading and watched the radar and climbed out at full power. While we climbed I could hear the patient laughing in back: Tom had a great sense of humor, and the laughter relaxed her. And me, even though I couldn't hear what he was saying. I felt like I had really done something to make the world a better place.

But now it was my turn. I was strapped onto the cath lab table. The cardiologist found the problem quickly, and it was a bad one: My left main coronary artery was 85% blocked. Stent or surgery? I had to decide right now. I got a short reprieve while they fetched my wife and the surgeon.

The cardiologist laid out the facts: it would be a tricky stent. There was a 1 in 200 chance that it would fail. If it failed I would die, immediately.

The surgeon laid out his view: because of my previous bypass and the location of the lesion, surgery had a 10% chance of serious complications: stroke, heart attack, death, infection, and the rest. "If you think your first bypass was a bitch," he said, "this will be a bitch-and-a-half."

"If the surgeon isn't enthusiastic then don't choose surgery." That was my wife.

"Statistics don't apply to individuals," I said.

"Exactly," said the cardiologist.

"It's like Pascal's Wager," I said.

"What's that?" asked the docs.

"Don't explain it to them now," my wife interrupted. Stick a catheter into a mathematics professor's heart and you still have a mathematics professor wanting to seize the teachable moment. Pascal's Wager is a situation with a very small probability of a very bad outcome.

"This is dangerous," the cardiologist said, a slight edge of fear in his voice. "I have a wire right in the lesion. You have to decide."

I realized that the next words I spoke might be my last. I was determined to make them count.

"Tell the kids I love them; let's try the stent."

It worked.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Medical Certificate (or lack thereof)

My FAA medical is a "Special Issuance" due to my history of heart problems. The FAA makes me get a treadmill test every year in order to keep it. That was Wednesday. It was a disaster! As you might imagine, I have studied cardiology as intensively as I study flying, so I was watching the EKG tracings on the screen and saw them getting worse and worse. I had the PA doing the test check my blood pressure, which was starting to go down, not up. We stopped the test, by mutual agreement, before I was even breathing hard. The EKG got even worse during the "recovery."

I met with my cardiologist this afternoon to go over the results, and we scheduled a catheterization (angiogram) for Thursday morning with the area's best-regarded interventionist. If he says "stent?" I'll say "yes, please."

Angiograms can be dangerous but this is my fifth.

This ain't my first rodeo, so I know I can handle six months of restricting my flying to doing checkouts and BFRs with rated/current pilots, and staying current myself with a safety pilot. Medical or no, I won't feel like a real pilot unless I am instrument and night current! I'll do some glider flying when I'm sure that I am safe.

Facing my mortality justifies being a little philosophical. I've had this disease for 12 years. I should have died then. Instead, I've watched my twins grow up, completed two triathlons, flown dozens of single-pilot air ambulance flights in King Airs and a Cessna 414, made lots of friends, taken friends and family and customers on flying adventures, taught some things both to flying and to university students, directed a doctoral dissertation, written some good mathematical papers, impressed the instructors at Flight Safety, written a book, biked hundreds of miles, traveled in Europe and Asia, cooked some great meals and enjoyed those cooked by others, and generally made the most of every day.

I suggest that you all do the same.


Monday, September 21, 2009


Although I have been reading the New York Review of Books for many years, I can't think of a single other pilot who does so, and I'm betting that none of you read Michael Massing's recent article about newspapers. I was surprised at a tiny editorial decision: while I grew up thinking of my hometown newspaper as the Boston Globe, the article called it the Boston Globe. Similar choices were made for other newspapers.

[Don't worry, there's aviation to come]

I think this choice is a mistake because it reduces the importance of the city; the Boston Globe is no more about Boston than the Harlem Globetrotters are about Harlem, while the separation of Boston from Globe emphasizes the city connection.

All of these newspapers have had wonderful columnists whose daily ramblings taught us what it meant to be a Bostonian, or an Angelino, or a Chicagoan, or whatever,writers like Mike Barnicle, Jimmy Breslin, Studs Terkel, those kind of guys. I'll even extend the honor to Peter Gzowski, whose distinctive voice on CBC Radio taught a generation what it meant to be a Canadian. All of them were controversial, but that's the nature of being the voice of the city (or, in Gzowski's case, the country).

I once spent a semester on sabbatical in Texas. My first weekend there, I bought the Dallas newspapers, and sat down to learn about being a Texan. (Those days are gone. Now I live in Idaho and read the daily New York Times on my iPhone.) There is no concept of "temporary" Texan, as far as I can tell, so I had to get up to speed quickly. I can't remember which newspaper it was in, but there was a wonderful column about a toothless old lady who ran a cafe and store and still loved life. The story painted a vivid picture of life in rural Texas, and I remember it fondly to this day.

That local newspaper columnist who taught me so much about Texas had already taught me a lot about flying. It was Gordon Baxter, whose monthly column in Flying was one of my favorite features.

Lots of his "Bax Seat" stories came flooding to mind today. Spinning the Mooney. Thinking about landing "one of those pesky 150s" on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Mexico. Busting the Houston TCA, "squawkin' and talkin'." The ride in the Citation: "Jet time!" Barfing in the Stearman "as the coaming came up around me."

Bax wasn't always the good guy, but his heart was always in the right place and he loved the people he wrote about. He taught us what it means to be a pilot. Let's try to keep him in mind.

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Monday, September 14, 2009


No, not Brackett-LaVerne Field. Bracket, as in "if I stay between the highway and coast I can't miss the airport."

Aviation is in a confused state right now, at least in my part of the world. The pipeline of new pilots has slowed. It was slowing before the financial crisis, so we can't sleaze out of blaming ourselves for not making flying attractive.

But right here at my home airport I see both extremes. On the right, we have the first Eclipse VLJ that I have seen in person. It is an attractive airplane, and only a congressman, or even Kanye West, could find a way to say that it is not an amazing performer. Of course it cost a lot of money. and the company got ahead of itself, and Dayjet got ahead of itself, but those points are all irrelevant. The relevant point is that the Eclipse is an exciting new design. Shouldn't that attract people to aviation?

And on the left we see the other bracket, a magnificent Piper PA-12 Supercruiser. I used to fly one, and it is a fun airplane.

Amazing performance or fun? Which one will attract people to aviation? Both!

The airport manager recently sponsored a booth at the state fair. I was amazed by the number of people who stopped by and said "I would love to fly, but they won't let me." "They" were the Medical Certification Branch of the FAA, or course. So I would ask about their disqualifying condition (unfortunately, I have had the opportunity to become an expert on the Special Issuance process, having about four disqualifying conditions myself). None were all that bad, given modern medicine.

"Do you have a driver's license?"


"Then you can fly!"

Their eyes lit up. This does not mean that they could fly an Eclipse, or even the PA-12 (I think it's too heavy), but there are dozens of airplanes, new and old, fun and beautiful, which they can fly as Sport Pilots.

The FBO where I teach chose to ignore this segment. A CFI friend up the road has a LSA Ercoupe that he's flying an amazing amount.

So I'm looking for an LSA airplane. Maybe a T-Craft, or a Cub of some kind? It won't be an Eclipse, but it sure ill be fun!

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Friday, September 11, 2009


It's inevitable. Every year, school starts. Suddenly, my time is not my own.

But this year is going to be different. The Computer Science department is short-handed, and asked me to teach a one of their courses (Data Structures and Algorithms). I really enjoy this course and jumped at the chance.

And there's a bonus. The University has two campuses, about 45NM apart. Oh, wait, I mean about 50 statute miles apart. Data Structures has students at both campuses. And that means I can commute by air!

Our Faculty Handbook says that private aircraft travel is reimbursed at the same mileage rate as private auto travel. So, the university would be paying for half the flight, while Uncle Sam would pay for half of the rest (my very conservative accountant thinks that any flying I do is tax deductible because it "enhances my ability to attract students." His words, not mine.)

I hate it when my motives aren't pure.

So, the first day of school, I packed up my books and drove out to the airport. I was not wearing a tie, but at least I had a nice Nordstrom's dress shirt. I got a standard briefing, did a preflight for the Archer, and flew to school. The FBO had a courtesy car (I was mentally prepared to pay for a taxi). I taught my class and flew home. Sweet!

The flights were not interesting. For the first I departed runway 3, headed northeast, and landed on runway 2. No turns. On the way back the valley winds had done their daily shift and I departed runway 20, flew southwest, and landed on runway 21. Again, no turns. But at least I flew. (I once had a 500NM flight like this, alone in a Cessna 414. I departed Fresno, which smelled like olives, flew runway heading for a few miles, and got "cleared direct Pocatello." The GPS showed me on the very extended centerline of runway 3 at Pocatello. My next turn was a right at taxiway 'C.' That was one of those hard-to-stay-awake flights.)

When I got back to my office I called the CS department office to ask about the reimbursement.

"We don't have any money for that this year. The professors are going up there out of pocket."

So now Uncle Sam would be paying for half of my flight, fer sure: commuting for the benefit of my employer is definitely tax deductible.

This week, the Archer was in for its annual, so I took the Six. (The Archer has been in the shop for a while and I'm not sure the club is ready to handle the presumably large bill that generates. But the only way for us to raise money is to fly.)

The Six is definitely overkill for a flight of this distance. I dragged around 5 empty seats at 140 knots. My DUATS flight log showed 19 minutes up, 20 minutes home. But it always seems like a guy in a dress-shirt in a high performance airplane gets a better reception at the FBO than the guy in a t-shirt in an Archer. And the Six is a great value: half of the performance of a King Air for 1/8 of the price! Still, professors and pilots share the parsimony gene, and I hesitated to spend the extra money to fly the Six. I finally said "I'm a pilot. I fly places!" and wrote the check.

This week's flight was more interesting. I had to turn out early to avoid a helicopter in the pattern, and I landed on runway 20 up north, so I got to make a couple of turns.

I think I'm going to enjoy this commuting, no matter the expense. The commute will be my only connection to business aviation, the source of clients with airplanes like 340s and 414s and 210s and Mooneys who need recurrent training. These folks are fun to work with, the flying is challenging, and the airplanes are nice. As a professor I am too cheap to buy one.

And, I don't have to wear a tie.

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