Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A New Personal Low

Howdy. I’m sure everyone is as relieved as I am that January 3, 2007 came and went without a terrorist event in Alaska. I’m sure the seemingly neurotic fellow in my previous post was instrumental in preventing such an occurrence.

That’s assuming the terrorists had nothing to do with the tire that blew out when we landed on an Aleutian island a couple days ago. I think it probably had more to do with frozen moisture preventing the wheel from turning when we touched down. Landing in a central Alaskan town earlier that day, I set a new record for the coldest temperature I had ever experienced at -41 which is roughly the same in Fahrenheit as Celcius. I was really thankful that there was no wind. Aside from the moisture freezing in my nostrils every time I inhaled, -41 wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d thought it might be.

Later, while we waited for a mechanic to show up with a new tire, one of our ramp workers gave me the grand tour of the little Aleutian village. The road up to the hill-perched village was littered with stacks of rusty crab pots and we passed a couple marinas full of big (40’-60’) fishing boats. Rays of sun escaped through holes in the overcast and spotlighted three or four small sailboats in the bay. Hardy individuals to be sure!

We went to the docks, where my co-worker (a former fisherman) chatted with a couple of fishermen who were preparing to offload their catch. Throwing octopus into a large bucket and chipping away at ice on the hull, they enjoyed the inconsequential banter of those whose lives share similar routines.

It was one of the rare moments since I moved to Anchorage when I really felt like I was in Alaska.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

16 oz. Cup of Insanity, With Whipped Cream

Howdy. I’m back in Anchorage today after a 30-hour failed effort to jump-seat home for Christmas. I made it as far as Seattle, in the cockpit of a 737. I spent a whole day there trying to get on a flight to anywhere that might have a connecting flight to Kansas City. Every flight was overbooked by at least 10. Literally, the only flight I could catch out of Seattle was back to Anchorage.

I should mention that there was a remote chance that I could have made it to Chicago in the cockpit of another 737, but when the captain walked up, he was an heir to the insane company I worked for last summer. They threatened to sue the company that hired my co-workers and me last fall despite the fact that none of us were under contract to stay in Juneau for any specific period of time. Alas, even if there had ended up being room for me, I probably would have been kicked off the airplane as soon as the captain found out who I was.

So, smelly and bearded, I found my self in my own bed last night, resigned to the fact that this will be the first Christmas of my life not spent with family.

I’m not supposed to fly again for over a week. So I’m making a mental list of things I should do to keep from developing a twitch in the mean time. On the list:

Write blog post
Get ice skates sharpened
Ice skate
Record silly songs I’ve written in the last couple months
Send (late) Holiday cards
Study work stuff (possible drawback of inducing its own twitch...)
Return personal effects of ex-girlfriend (see drawback above)
Continue learning Ruby programming language.
Host/attend French movie night.
Clean out my car

So yeah. Some of these bear explanation.

First, this is the first time I’ve ever lived in a place cold enough to skate on lakes in the winter. So in search of cheap exercise and entertainment, I bought myself a pair of ice skates at Wal-Mart. They were the only pair of size 13 skates I could find in town. When, on my first trip to Westchester Lake, my legs kept trying to slide out and do the splits, I thought I was just a terrible skater. Then someone saw my skates and told me that I was a terrible skater AND my skates could stand to be sharpened.

Adam’s Secret Recipe For Making Friends in a New Town:

When I was doing aerial mapping, I learned one very important thing: If you become a regular in a place where like minded people gather, you won’t be able to avoid making friends. It’s like going to church without all that messy religious stuff. (You can just kind of assume that everyone’s a pervert. You don’t have to find out on your internet news service.)

Step one: Become a regular at the open-mic-night hosted by a happenin’ establishment
downtown. The one I’ve found here is a really good time. The MC is a sort of local celebrity, super nice guy, and extremely talented singer and song-writer, Jared Woods. Most people who perform there are pretty talented, though. You’ve got your Norah Jones (except with a banjo). You’ve got your Joplin. You’ve got your Cash and Dylon. On a slow night, you’ve got your drunk guy (the one who’s not just there on open mic night) doing an a cappella Beatles tune, offering $3.00 to whoever can name the original artist. Hearing what others are writing has really inspired me to write more. And the feedback that I’ve gotten from people who actually listen has been really helpful and encouraging.

Dude. There’s a hunched over, bearded guy sitting next to me at the coffee shop who’s talking to (or at least thinks he’s talking to) the FBI on his cell phone. He thinks terrorists accidentally sent him a coded email about a planned attack in Alaska on January 3, 2007. He can’t figure out how to forward the email to the authorities, so he’s reading it aloud over the phone. Some of it is in French but he doesn’t know that. “Less ducks marks,” he said. Then he spells it out, “L-E-S D-E-U-X M-A-R-Q-U-E-S” This totally beats blogging at home.

Step two: Find a coffee shop with internet. Become a regular there. In addition to the crazies like the one I just mentioned and good ol’ Errol from Wisconsin, sometimes when the place is packed, a couple of girls will walk by looking for a table and speaking French. Offer (in French) to share your table. They will accept, and tell you that they will soon be joined by many more francophones for their weekly game of French Scrabble. Become a regular at the French Scrabble game. Results may vary. Some such groups are associated with universities and won’t meet during the winter break. In this case, plan a movie night.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Aye! Oh! Weee!

Howdy. After I got back from San Antonio, I sat around Anchorage for a week, reading silly books and watching C-Span. By the time they were finally ready for me to start my initial operating experience, my brain had turned to putty and I’d forgotten practically everything I’d learned in six weeks of ground school and simulator training. Add to that the fact that we were taking off at 4:00 to 5:00 in the morning, and you have a recipe for the seeming disaster that was my IOE experience. Favorite quotes include “You bust altitudes like other people drink water!” and “Where do you come up with this stuff?! You’re so convincing, but SO WRONG!!” The latter was regarding bogus answers I was giving in response to questions about the IFR alternate airport requirements in our company’s Operations Specifications. Those had been covered in about week two of the training process. Obviously I overestimated my abilities to retain such information. I would have had more luck with questions about candidates for the mid-term election.

Go Me.

In any case, I’m finally flying on line after almost two months of training and initial operating experience. Yesterday was my first day off after 10 days of straight flying. I started feeling better about my performance in the airplane after about day six as well as after some of the other new guys started IOE and I could tell they were going through a very similar experience. I’m still learning a lot (read “Screwing Up”) on every flight, but it keeps getting better.

The flying is very different from what I was doing over the summer. We climb above the clouds here instead of constantly ducking underneath them. On the morning cargo flights, there were several times when I didn’t see a single thing outside the cockpit from the time we took off until the destination runway showed up in the windshield at the bottom of a bumpy instrument approach.

I was having a bit of trouble with my approaches during the first few days. Things were happening really fast and I was having some trouble maintaining situational awareness. I was I was consistently way too fast (or too high, or both) at the initial approach fix because the method I was using didn’t let me monitor the progress of the descent to tell if I was on track or not. This gave me less time to deal with actually flying the approach.

When I started flying with another check airman who had a better method of planning the descent from cruising altitude (about 20,000 ft) to the initial approach altitude (about 3,000 ft), I realized that my trouble on the approaches was starting about 50 miles before the actual approach. So once I got better at planning the descent, the approaches were much more manageable.

That’s just one example of how the learning process has gone over the last couple weeks since I got in the airplane. Landings finally sort of came together on day eight or nine. There are just a lot of things I needed to learn to think about that didn’t really apply when I was flying between the mountains at 500 feet in a Cherokee.

I’m still in Alaska though, and there are definitely some similarities. I was the non-flying-pilot a few days ago when we got bogged down a bit while taking off from a slushy gravel runway on the coast of the Bering Sea. The takeoff ended up fine, but upon landing in Anchorage, we discovered some fairly significant nicks in both propellers. Both were subsequently replaced. A memo is sure to follow.

I’m back in ground school for the next day or so in order to get on the same recurrent training schedule as everybody else. I’m hoping that we talk about IFR alternate airport requirements. I’m ready for him this time! After tomorrow, I’ll probably have about a week off. I’m thinking of trying to jumpseat down to Kansas to see the family for the first time since March. I can do that now. I’m an airline pilot. Go Me.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Better Than A "State Of Denial"

Howdy. Greetings from the “Vagabond Blues” coffee shop in Palmer, Alaska. I drove the hour up here from Anchorage this afternoon to pick up the title to the car I bought a few weeks ago. It’s a ’99 Hyundai Accent. Upon seeing photos, my father, using a newly acquired piece of vocabulary, referred to it as a “hoopty.” Granted, when I found it, body damage on the rear quarter panel required the trunk to be held closed with a bungee cord. I have since secured it from the inside with an industrial strength zip tie. The damage to the sides and the front quarter panel have, at least so far, not required any corrective efforts on my part. The seats are stained with god-knows-what and specked with glitter. In addition to the fact that it only had 53,000 miles and the purchase price was $1,300, all of this leads me to believe that the previous owner was the irresponsible, alcoholic, 16 year old daughter of one of the pillars of this suburban Anchorage community. Seems to run pretty well, though. I just hope it makes it through the winter.

I was awakened at 10:30 this morning by shafts of sunlight shooting through the blinds of my second story bedroom on Government hill. Even though I was still in bed, I could see over downtown Anchorage to the mountains on the opposite side of the valley. The snow is almost perceptibly inching its way down the slopes as the freezing level descends in a Dick Clark style countdown to winter. I got up and made a killer breakfast burrito with eggs, tomatoes, onions, green chili peppers, cheese, and thick slices of bacon.

After a shower, I went to the hangar.

“I just got back from simulator training in San Antonio”, I explained to Ginger the purchasing lady.
“Ah, and you passed your check ride?”
“All right. You’ll need to go and get measured for your pants. You’ll get three pairs and your share is $195. You’ll also need the parka, which is $65. Did you want to get one of the black sweaters?”
“I’m from Kansas. I’ll probably need all the insulation I can get.”
“Yes you will. That’s another $35. We can take $47 out of each of your next six paychecks if you’d like...”
“Uh, yeah."
“OK, here are your wings, epaulettes, tie, and stocking cap.”

Next, I thought I’d see if I could find out when I’ll begin Initial Operating Experience. I couldn’t. After a six week tornado of relocation and all-consuming study of company policies and aircraft systems and procedures, I now find myself restlessly waiting to apply all that I have (or should have) learned. However, it is great to have a chance to breath a bit, do some recreational reading, and worry about the bills I’ve accumulated with the move, the car purchase, and the minimal pay during training.

A couple weeks ago, Mom mentioned to her man-friend that I was in a “state of transition.” He replied that I was always in a state of transition. If you look at the last, oh, eight years, he’s right. As such, it came as a shock to some who know me that I signed a two-year contract with this airline. That’s about four times my tenure with my last three employers. I think that’s a good thing though. If I’d gotten another six month gig, I’d probably have lost all credibility.

Plus, I’m pretty optimistic about this situation. I’ll be home almost every night. I’ll be flying a 17 passenger twin turbo-prop into some really incredible spots (several of our destinations are islands in the Bering Sea). I’ll probably even have the opportunity to do some more bush flying. The schedule here is much better than it was in Juneau. I’m supposed to have 3 days off per week (instead of one), which should give me lots of time to explore all the outdoor spots and community activities available around here. I also have jump seat privileges with most of the big airlines, so I can go pretty much anywhere I want on my days off.

I’m probably going to try to work as much overtime as possible for a while, though.

Gotta pay off the hoopty, yo.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

*****Censored in the Interest of National Security*****

Howdy. This morning finds me in Skagway. I have today and tomorrow off so I’m en route to Whitehorse to do some mountain biking and see some more of the beautiful Yukon Territory. It is 8:15 a.m. and I’ve been awake since 10:30 yesterday morning. The fact that I needed to catch a 5:30 a.m. mail flight in order to catch the 8:30 bus to Canada in no way prevented me from faxing resumes until almost two this morning. I sent nine of them last night, all to operators in the glorious state of Alaska. Come to find out, there are companies up here who will pay you decent money to fly and give you more than one day off per week to enjoy all the recreational opportunities Alaska has to offer. I can’t wait to see if I get any responses.

After unleashing the Hezbollah-esque barrage of resumes, I figured I might as well do laundry and watch reruns of “Knight Rider” on the Sci-Fi Channel until my ride showed up at five. I’d forgotten what passed for acting by David Hasselhoff and how sassy that talking wonder car could be. In one episode, DH reunited with his lost-love-turned-pop-diva. You see, her band mate had been offed by some drug smuggling producers who were hiding single frames of encrypted binary code in music videos to communicate pick-up locations. So Hasselhoff filled in for the dead partner in order to get “under cover” and solve the case. How could I change the channel? The musical interludes and pleather unitards in that episode do a lot to explain DH’s popularity among Eastern Europeans.

The nostalgic thrill kept me going as I helped David (the pilot, not the bad actor) load rain-soaked mail into one of our Cherokee Sixes at 5:30 this morning. I often think of my mom’s dad when I’m loading the mail. He worked on B-29’s during World War II after which he was a rural letter carrier for the Post Office. He also raised Charolais Beef, four children, twelve grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

The man created a loving empire.

Although it sometimes feels almost like a tribute to him when I’m working with the mail, carrying passengers around here can be pretty touching too. I love seeing joyful reunions of long separated family members. Sometimes I wonder if the whole village isn’t at the airport. I wonder if every member of the community didn’t stop mending fishing nets, eating re-heated McDonald’s cheeseburgers, and drinking beer to welcome one of it’s prodigal children back from the outside world; to welcome them back home.

I also witness many tearful goodbyes. One small girl sobbed as she got a goodbye hug from her drug addicted mother and cried all the way to Juneau as her grandfather took her towards a better home.

Fairly regularly, I see families mourn as their young head out to find whatever they’re looking for that they haven’t found in the village.

And then there are the tourists from places like Colorado Springs, Baltimore, and Tokyo. I often find myself smiling broadly after dropping off awestruck Kansans who (like me) had never seen a real waterfall before coming here. They never fail to rekindle my enthusiasm and respect for the beauty of this place.

And this may be horrible, but Japanese people crack me up. One time as I was getting ready to leave Gustavus in the rain, I started drying my sunglasses on my sweater when a member of a Japanese tour group stopped me, took my sunglasses and fastidiously dried them with a towel he happened to have in his lap. Then he bowed his head and offered them back to me, holding them delicately in both hands.

I felt like a giant furry Disney character after that flight when all of my passengers wanted an individual picture of themselves with their “Capeetaan.”

As much fun as I’m having, the fact remains that this isn’t a company I see myself working for in the long term. Last week, froth formed in the 87 year old founder’s mouth as he shouted, “THAT’S THE LAST STRAW!!! WE’RE NEVER GOING TO MAKE IT NOW!!” He was incensed that none of the pilots would go with him to test fly an airplane that had just made a precautionary landing due to engine shenanigans. It turned out that the fuel pump was failing.

I’m really hoping that the next move keeps me in Alaska, though. I’ll never forget sitting with my grandfather as he lay dying from congestive heart failure. In a morphine-induced lucid dream sort of state, he would pull imagined letters out the sheets of his hospital bed and sort them into the ethereal mail slots above his tray table. The life I’ve found could conceivably prevent me from building an empire. I get a feeling sometimes though, as I’m chasing super-luminous rainbows or hovering in the infinite reflection of mossy green mountains and incendiary sky in a calm sea. I find myself hoping that if I’m ever in a state such as he was in, to return to moments such as these.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


Howdy. A message to all concerned parties: No, I have not crashed into a glacier or been eaten by bears. I have been flying a whole lot. Almost 120 hours in May and I’m still loving it. I am, however, tiring of the disorganization of our dispatch department. It’d be really nice to know the schedule for the day before 5 minutes prior to liftoff (especially since we’re supposed to be a scheduled operator...) and happy passengers are much more fun to fly than those who have been waiting hours for a flight home. I’ve been doing my best to maintain a flexible positive attitude. “Just tell me what to put on my plane and where to go.” It’s difficult to maintain that attitude sometimes when I’m told to unload 700 pounds of mail that I’ve just shoved into an airplane in the rain because of dispatch’s poor planning.

Once I’m in the air, though, this is the best job I’ve ever had. I’ve been working 12 days and then having two off. I’m finding that I’m about as worn out after working a dozen 12 hour days here as I was after 5 days in an office and it’s great having two days off in a row instead of just one. I’ve been able to get out and do some hiking and camping in Skagway and Haines. I even made it up to Whitehorse, Canada where I met up with some new friends to drive from Whitehorse to Haines for the beer festival weekend. The scenery on that drive was unearthly and Haines in the summertime is about as close to paradise as I’ve ever seen. The pink and blue sunset silhouettes mountains to the west and infuses those to the east with luminous green and white splendor. Colorful wildflowers and even strawberries grow at the side of the roads and a breeze full of sweet pollen blows down from Mount Rapinski. It makes me think, “this is what all of those chemical engineers who make air freshener are trying so hard to emulate!”

I’ll try to write more often because I know I’m leaving out lots of important details here. Ha! Like the time my passengers introduced me to a guy in a hangar in Haines. He was in the process of gutting a giant brown bear in the back of his pickup truck. He lifted up its head which was even bigger than my brother’s, and said “This is the biggest bear anyone’s gotten around here in decades!!” I’ve learned that modesty is not a virtue of the prototypical Alaskan. If my life were a movie, this guy could have been played by none other than John Wayne, himself. When we were introduced, he stuck out his hand, paused to examine the entrails covering it, and then said, “Awww, yer a pilot!” and squish!!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Insert Divinity Tab A Into Spiritual Hole B

Howdy. Welcome to another sunny day in Juneau. Actually it’s raining again. Still, rather. The word “again” would imply that at some point in the last week (or three) it had stopped. A sunny day would be nice, but I’m not letting the grayness get to me. Low clouds are a great excuse to fly low, which is a fantastic thrill. It’s so cool because up here, as long as you have enough visibility to avoid mountains, you can fly pretty low over the water and not have to worry about hitting cell phone towers, grain silos, and other obstacles that would preclude flying so low in, say, Kansas. The only trouble is that we are required to maintain enough altitude that, should the engine fail, we would be able to glide to shore (however unsuitable for an emergency landing that shore may be...). Most of our routes don’t require long water passages though, so we can get most places on most days.

Aside from getting to fly in the coolest place on Earth, I’m really enjoying the varied pace of the flying I’ve been doing. If I always had passengers on board, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the full performance envelope of the aircraft because I’d always have to be concerned with passengers’ comfort. If I were flying all cargo, I might miss having some human interaction during the course of the day.

In addition to the ever-present villagers and their groceries and beer (lots of beer), I’ve already carried a really fascinating variety of people and cargo. On Easter, I delivered a fair number of cellophane wrapped baskets full of furry stuffed idols sitting in candy laden plastic grass. Yesterday, I smelled fish every time I sipped my coffee. I’d just loaded buckets of hooligan into the back of the plane.

On one trip, I carried the owner of a flower shop. On another, construction workers turned seasonal diamond dealers en route from Lancaster, PA to Skagway, a popular cruise destination. Many of my passengers have never been in a small plane before. Some are thrilled, some terrified, and some ambivalent to the differences between being a passenger in a Cherokee Six and a Boeing 737.

My passenger load one day consisted of a reputed marijuana dealer and a Catholic Priest.

I had two legs of a trip to get acquainted with another member of the clergy associated with the Assembly of God. He had just concluded a Religious and Cultural Intolerance Tour of native villages in the interior of Alaska. In my opinion, I exercised near Christ-like self restraint when he inquired about my religious status and then asked me to describe “in a nutshell” my agnosticism. I said nothing about my view of religion as a destructive social virus at the root of many of humanity’s problems throughout history. I only mentioned that the process had been more of an acknowledgement of how I’d always felt than a sudden dramatic rejection of the faith. I mean, he seemed like a nice enough guy and I’m sure he’s brought comfort, however illusory, to many people through his ministry.

I’m also trying to quell my own religious intolerance.

I loaded a new Martin acoustic and an unidentified electric guitar for a guy who I was taking to Haines. On the way up the canal, he told me about how he’d initially come to Alaska to pan for gold and ended up using fiberglass skills, gained by making surfboards, on the oil pipeline construction project. He told me about being charged by a brown bear. Despite being backed up to a cliff and faced with “sharp teeth dripping with quarts of drool”, he evidently saved himself by throwing his backpack in the air, jumping, screaming and waving his arms.

We discovered we shared a similar taste in music, and I told him about the plateau I feel I’ve reached in my playing. I know a few right hand finger picking patterns, but everything’s starting to sound the same, and all I can really do with a flat pick is strum. He told me he remembered being in that place and thought he might be able to help me over the hump. He invited me to drop in sometime for a jam session, an invitation which I fully plan to keep.

Have I mentioned that I’m having the time of my life?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Enjoying Some Rare Sunshine

The Light House on Eldred Rock.

Friday, April 14, 2006

More Than Scenery

Howdy. It’s finally Friday, my only day off, so I took the bus downtown to get a cup of coffee and update the ol’ blog. It’s a sunny day here in downtown Juneau and the din of saws and hammers echoes through the area as businesses prepare for the annual tourist inundation. I’m curious to experience the phenomenon of streets going from empty to packed in a matter of minutes as cruise ships unload their upper middle class cargo.

I’m all finished with IOE and I’ve been flying the line on my own for about a week now. My landings have gotten much smoother and I’m really having a blast.

A couple days ago, I was flying the company’s founder Haines to Juneau in a Cherokee Six. As we were taxiing for departure, he asked how many hours I had. When I told him, he said “Well, you oughtta be headed for the airlines soon!” I shrugged, indicating my indifference to the “normal” career path.

“Yeah,” he said, “After World War Two, I could have flown the fastest planes in the world, but I thought it’d be more fun to land Super Cubs on Mountains!”

Makes sense to me.

As we leveled off for the short cruise down Lynn Canal, the oil door on top of the cowling popped open and started flapping in the wind. I wasn’t terribly concerned, but the veteran worried that it could cause uneven airflow around the cylinders causing hot spots that could shorten the life of the engine. We decided to head back to Haines where he hopped out and closed the spring loaded door. As we climbed out again, he fell asleep until we leveled off again and again the oil door popped open. He awoke and growled, “Meh, we’ve got to get there for a meeting. We’ll just have to take our chances with the cylinders...” That logic always baffles me, but I didn’t perceive an immediate threat. We were loaded pretty light and the air was cold. A Six ought to limp along all right on five cylinders in those conditions. His concern was more with replacing cylinders or a $30,000 engine than having to ditch into 33 degree water on the 20 minute flight down to Juneau which was in fact uneventful.

Last week, Juneau hosted the Alaska Folk Festival. People, from all over Alaska and elsewhere showed up to play in the nightly shows. Many of the performers came from tiny Alaskan villages and I got the impression that for many of them this was the only time during the year when audiences had the privilege of witnessing and praising their talents. I also enjoyed watching the Contra and Square dancing that took place in the National Guard building across from Centennial Hall. I saw at least one fisherman in sequins dancing the female part.

The Alaskan Hotel and Bar was really hoppin' all week too. One night, we watched a top notch blue grass group who before their break announced a "Crazy Hair Contest" and asked for volunteers to man the clippers. I raised my hand and I was giddy that they picked me. How often do you get the chance to go wild on other people's hair with a pair of electric clippers?! My first clients were a couple, both of whom had their hair cropped to about an eighth of an inch. The guy wanted lightning bolts on the sides, and the gal wanted me to give her a wide mohawk. She went to the bathroom, didn't like the results (I thought it looked great!!) and I ended up taking it all off. Down to the skin. I gave another guy a reverse mohawk by shaving down the middle of his head. I'm glad I wasn't around any of those people when they woke up the next morning!

The charming, home grown Folk Festival experience exuded an authenticity that is emblematic of my experience since I arrived in Juneau. Somehow everything here seems super-real. I think the extremeness of the terrain and the real risks so many people take to work and live up here contribute to a refreshing atmosphere of truth and immediacy. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been as concerned with existential questions since I got here. Just existing is satisfying enough.