Hot Chicken, Icy Wings

Originally posted on AirFactsJournal’s website February 26, 2020.

“What do you mean you’ve never heard of Nashville hot chicken?!”

I couldn’t believe that this guy – the guy who says “ten” when the server at the Thai restaurant asks how hot, on a scale of one to five, he wants his entrée – had never heard of Nashville hot chicken.  He’s lived in North Carolina for most of his life, where at least two things are readily available: fried chicken and hot sauce.

Gary is one of three pilots in the corporate flight department for which I’m the Director of Maintenance and has been a huge influence during my flight training.  I’ve been involved in aviation maintenance since I was eighteen years old, and in my late thirties I started flying with the goal of becoming a pilot in our Falcon 900LX, as well as the D.O.M.  I know how to fix ‘em, I guess I just wanted to see what it was like to break ‘em, too.  That, and you just can’t beat the office view.

Gary (left) and Elliott (right) ready for an adventure.

As I worked my way from Student Pilot to Private Pilot, then on through my Instrument rating, Gary and I decided that once I got checked out in an airplane that would make it from Monroe, NC (EQY) to Nashville (BNA) without multiple stops, we’d make the trip to get ourselves some Nashville Hot Chicken for the first time, because I’d never had it, either. I got my A&P and IA in Nashville some years ago (thanks again, Baker’s!) but was fully entrenched in the course work, so I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the local cuisine.

I got checked out in my flight school’s PA-28R Arrow, and off we went on a chilly February IMC day with thousand-ish foot ceilings and smooth air.  We landed at BNA, got the crew car from Atlantic, and headed downtown to pick up Gary’s friend Ted.

“Hey Ted, where’s the best hot chicken around?”

“Well, Prince’s is probably the best, but somebody just drove a car into it last night, so let’s check out Party Fowl instead.”

The hot chicken was as good as I was hoping it was going to be.  Hot chicken really is nothing more than spicy fried chicken but, man, it’s some REALLY good spicy fried chicken. 

Ready to get greasy at Party Fowl.

Once we had bellies full of cayenne-stained, crispy-skinned greasy goodness, we dropped Ted off at his office building and headed back to the airport.

The weather was drizzly, chilly, and generally not what I was used to flying in.  Part of my preflight planning was taking a look at the icing forecasts, freezing levels, etc.  The freezing level and icing forecast over the Appalachians that day all came together at about 9,000’.  I filed direct KBNA – KEQY at 7,000’.  Piece of cake.  This is where my inexperience starts to show.  Or, another way to say it is, this is where my inexperience continues to compound.

Most of the airways showed an MEA of 7000’ but some, which I obviously missed, were 8000’ and we were heading east, which meant a minimum altitude of 9000’.  I paid no attention to sector altitudes and didn’t give a thought to the fact that ATC may need to take me higher to satisfy their terrain avoidance minimums. 

I paid for our fuel, preflighted the airplane in the cold drizzle (fast), and we climbed in.  Gary was adamant about letting me make all the calls without getting too deeply, or at all, involved in the decision making.  He wanted me to have the experience of analyzing the data and making the calls.  I still don’t know if I love him or hate him for that! Depends on the day, I guess.

We took off from runway 2C and got into the clouds at around 2300 feet.  The leg to Nashville did quite a lot to make me more comfortable flying in IMC, so as we went into clouds, I told Gary that I was far less nervous now than I was when we started out.  The words coming out of my mouth should have given me a clue that I needed to get back down to earth but, I was feeling confident at the moment, which tells me now that I should have not felt very confident at that moment. 

We were happily, and smoothly, cruising along in the clouds at 7,000’ when ATC issued me a climb to 9,000’. I remember reading the instruction back and initiating the climb while thinking to myself this is a bad idea.  I had it in my head that I’d filed for 7, so we were going to stay at 7, but I climbed anyway.  The good thing about flying with a GoPro rolling is that I can go back and try to match up my inner monologue with my outer voice.  I didn’t say much, but I asked Gary a few general questions about icing and what the indications were.  I’m sure he knew exactly what I was thinking, but again, he was letting me make the calls. 

He explained some of the indications and different types of icing, accumulation rates, most prone areas, etc.  I nodded and said, “Uh huh.  Okay” while looking back and forth between the wings as nonchalantly as a nervous, newly-minted low-time, bug smashing pilot could look while sitting beside a 13,000+ hour jet jockey. 

Life is good between the layers.

We leveled at 9000’ and flew in smooth silence for several minutes.  Gary was drumming on his knee while I was trying to not look like I was way out of my comfort zone, which I was.

I tapped on the airspeed indicator and said, “Airspeed looks like it’s dropping.”  I expertly paused for about six seconds, because I didn’t know what to do.  Then I asked authoritatively, “Pitot heat?”

Gary said, “Yeah.  Give it a shot and see if it changes.”

The airspeed indictor was bouncing between 80 and 110 knots.  I said, pointing at the GPS, “Yeah, our ground speed is staying up.”

I turned on the pitot heat and watched the airspeed indicator continue to bounce for a few seconds, then slowly move up to about 130 knots and stay rock solid.

“Yep,” I said.

“Uh huh,” Gary said.  We were in agreement.

More silence.  I was wondering about how my kids were going to remember me, and Gary was probably wondering why we don’t have countdown timers on toasters yet, or something like that.

I said, “I wonder if they’ll give us seven again?”

Gary, knowing full-well the answer, said, “I don’t know, you could certainly ask.”

I asked.  They said no. 

“We’ll keep an eye on it,” the jet jockey said.

A few seconds later, Knoxville approach asked me how badly we needed to get down.  He may be able to get us a little lower.

In my best non-terrified voice, I said, “Yeah, we’re just picking up a little bit of ice here and we’d like to get down a little lower.”

Gary confirmed that we did have a little trace of ice on the wings and that, sure, the pitot probe had iced up, but there was no cause for panic just now. 

It was similar to a big brother telling his little brother that he really isn’t bleeding too badly; we can probably just rub some leaves and dirt on that gash and it’ll heal right up. Although he wants to believe his big brother, little brother still isn’t convinced that he isn’t going to die in an icy fireball.

Gary said that, worst case scenario, we could land in Knoxville since they had long runways, plenty of approaches, and we were catching glimpses of the airport through the holes in the clouds.  Yeah, um, I was thinking the same thing.

About the time that I was ready to divert to Knoxville, approach called us and said they could get us down to 8,300.’  I quickly accepted and started us down.  I leveled off and watched the ice almost immediately melt off the wings, along with the many pounds of worry from my shoulders.  Apparently, we were just on the edge of the icing and 700 feet was enough to get us into warmer air. 

The ice melting away, larger and larger holes in the clouds, and the terrain slowly gaining altitude below us gave me confidence that there wouldn’t be an NTSB report filed on our behalf.  At least not today.  Not long after the ice started melting, the clouds started breaking up and around Asheville, we broke out completely under a high overcast with a smooth ride.  We flew about another hour or so back to Monroe, and it was beautifully uneventful.

Breaking out – Finally

After watching the GoPro footage of the “icing incident” played back on my computer in the comfort of my own home with an adult beverage in hand, I saw that it wasn’t much of an incident after all.  As we were picking up that tiny bit of ice, Gary was in the right seat looking like he was on a Caribbean cruise while I was in the left seat acting as if I was about to initiate reentry into Earth’s atmosphere in a space capsule sold to me by a used-rocket salesman wearing plaid pants and white shoes.  She’s a real peach!

It’s not that my CFII didn’t teach me icing avoidance or how to plan my route over lower terrain in order to stay well below the icing level. He taught me all of that, and a lot more.  I think the problem is that I never really made the connection between training and reality.  It was tough for me to visualize picking up ice on the wings while I was wiping the sweat from my brow under the foggles. I’m a tactile learner, so sometimes a concept doesn’t completely sink in until I experience it firsthand.  Of course, that’s not to say that I’m not wary of base-to-final stall/spins because I’ve never experienced one, it’s more like I didn’t have an appreciation for how fast a spin can happen until that same instructor intentionally put us into a spin during a power-off stall.  PARE was just an acronym until I had to use it.

I would like to say that picking up a little bit of ice taught me a lesson and I never again made any sort of plan that didn’t match real-world expectations, but I can’t.  After a few laps in the pattern in a Seneca II, my instructor pulled one of the mixtures on me early in the takeoff roll and I swerved, filled the cockpit with expletives, and skidded a bit (a lot) before finally pulling the “good” throttle to idle and bringing us to a stop.  When I told Gary about the slalom session in the Seneca, I told him that I should’ve been better prepared because, “I even briefed an engine loss prior to rotation!”

He asked me, “When you did your takeoff briefing…did you mean it?”

Hmm. Well, NOW I mean it.

“I’m Just Trying To Keep My Lunch Down”

Originally published on Air Facts Journal’s website June 19, 2019

After working as a professional aviation mechanic/avionics tech for the past 23 years, I finally fulfilled the lifelong dream of becoming a pilot. I earned my Private Pilot Certificate in July 2018. My ten-year-old son, Elias, asked me relentlessly throughout my training to take him flying, and I promised him that he’d be my very first passenger, so the day after I passed my checkride we made it happen. One of the highlights in my life’s reel. We both had a blast.

My second passenger, and my first cross-country as a private pilot, was Garin, a lifelong friend with whom I grew up. He and his family came up to Clover to spend the weekend with us so I reserved my favorite 172 for Saturday morning. The weather was beautiful, if a little bit warm, with some showers moving in later in the day as normal. I decided we’d make the short, scenic hop from EQY up to HKY to get some grub at the airport cafe. On the way we would fly via JQF so he could get a good look at the nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway and dragstrip.

Cox passenger
Looking good so far!

It was a promising start. He was excited to break ground for the first time; he’d never flown before. I laid everything out for him the night before. I showed him the route on the sectional and explained the phases of flight and what he could expect. As we drove to EQY, I explained everything again. He had some good questions: How high are we going? Will there be turbulence? Why the hell does the airplane have a parachute? What do you mean if you’re incapacitated? Standard stuff, really.

We got down to the end of runway 5. There were two airplanes in the pattern, one turning base and one turning downwind, so I took the opportunity to explain the traffic pattern to him and we watched both airplanes land and get going again. He was thoroughly enjoying plane-watching and recording video on his phone. I rolled onto the runway, smoothly applied full power and started making my standard callouts. Engine’s making power, gauges are green, airspeed’s alive, here we go – rotate, and we’re off. That’s when he and I both, at the same time, realized that he was afraid of flying.

He stopped recording on his phone and looked for somewhere, anywhere, to hold on to. We flew over the end of the runway and I looked over and said, “So whaddaya think? Pretty cool, huh?” I got a rapid nod of his head with a quick “Yeah.” I said, “It’s a new sensation, you’ll get used to it pretty quickly. Just let me know if you get uncomfortable or anything. We’re still right over the airport so I can come back around and land if you want to get back on the ground.”

“Nah, it’s cool. I’m just trying to get used to it. I’m good. I’m good.”

He was talking to himself more than to me.

I pointed at the general direction of JQF and let him know that we’d be turning that way shortly. I made my last call on CTAF and gently banked left – about half standard rate because I knew he was not terribly relaxed. He was okay with the bank but I noticed that he wasn’t talking much. I looked over and saw that he was holding on to the pillar trim as if that’s what was holding the airplane together.

I had to keep reminding myself that I had just gone through about 90 hours of primary training – steep turns, stalls, emergency descents, etc., so I was comfortable in a small airplane. Garin, however, probably wouldn’t react very well to any of it.

I was pointing out landmarks on the horizon trying to get him engaged while taking his mind off being afraid of the wings crumpling and us cartwheeling to our deaths at any second. It seemed to work for a while. We flew over JQF and transitioned to the northwest. He liked seeing the speedway and the dragstrip and I started pointing out Lake Norman and the city of Charlotte as soon as we got on course.

I called CLT approach after we left the JQF Class D and got flight following to HKY. I told him what flight following was and that we’d just added an extra layer of safety to our flight because now we had ATC looking out for us and helping with traffic awareness. We spotted a few planes over the lake, one of which CLT Approach pointed out to us. He seemed to be relaxing at this point, but he still felt that the trim piece needed to be firmly held in place.

I asked him if he saw that smokestack on the far side of the lake and he said he did. I said, “Why don’t you grab the yoke and keep us pointed at it.”

“No.”

“Okay. You don’t have to. At least grab the yoke and follow me. You’ll see how easy it is to keep everything straight and level. Look, I’m barely touching it.”

“Alright.” He held the yoke with as few skin cells as he could manage.

I said, “I’m going to take my hand away for a second and it’ll be all you.”

“Okay.”

“I’m not touching a thing; it’s all you. Not too bad, huh?”

“Nah man, not too bad… okay, can you take it back now?”

I did. I don’t know whether I should have done the next part, but I did. And it was fun. I told him I wanted to show him something. I said, “You know what causes plane crashes?” He shook his head. “Human intervention. Watch.” I banked about 15 degrees to the right and brought the nose up about 10 degrees, then crossed my arms and took my feet off the pedals. He went stiff as a board but I told him, “See how the airplane just settles back to where it was? The airplane wants to fly; it’s people who screw everything up.”

Passenger holding on
A little less happy…

He nodded enthusiastically, but I suspect that it was more from still being alive than from my lesson in stability. I asked him if he wanted to fly again but he declined.

HKY tower cleared me for a right downwind to runway 6. I was talking through the landing process, but the change in configuration and “feel” of the airplane sent Garin’s legs into nervous shakiness. I had to tell him to put his feet forward some so that his knee wasn’t banging into me. Poor guy.

I made the right downwind to base turn and he leaned into me so hard I thought I was going to open my door. I calmly advised him that there was no way he was going to fall out but if he did, I would drop a pin on the iPad so I’d know where to send the cops. He laughed and mentioned something about putting his foot up something-or-other. I was concentrating on flying so I didn’t really get all the details.

As we were on short final I told him, “See? Nice and slow, the runway’s right there and we’re slowly working our way down. Not too scary, right?”

“Ask me again in five minutes.”

I made a decent landing and we taxied on to the FBO. We shut down and got out and I asked him again how he liked it. “I wonder how much a taxi is from here?”

We had a leisurely lunch and he told me that it was all new for him, but he really enjoyed it. A side note: the sweet potato fries at the cafe are phenomenal. I pulled up the flight plan in ForeFlight and showed him that there was no weather between us and home to be worried about, but that it might be a little bit bumpy because it was July in North Carolina.

We got back to the airplane and got strapped in. He was chipper at this point and looking forward to heading back. We departed from runway 6 and turned on course. I pointed out a couple of towers and a couple of hills between us and the lake. He said, “Cool.” I asked if he wanted to fly a little bit and he declined. We spotted a couple more airplanes sightseeing over the lake. I pointed to Concord and asked if he saw the airport, “Um hmm.”

Uh oh.

I didn’t want to start asking if he was feeling sick just in case he wasn’t feeling sick. I tried diverting his attention out the window.

“Man, I bet Concord Mills is packed today, huh? See the Bass Pro Shop right there? Lots of boats!”

Nothing.

Transition south over JQF. I was still trying. “We’re going to fly right over the speedway again. I’ll put it on your side so you can get a good look at it. This is where I took my checkride, right here. You see the runway back there? Going that way is runway 2 and my first checkpoint was right here and…”

“I’m just trying to keep my lunch down right now.”

You know how you can have a thousand thoughts go through your head in the blink of an eye?

Oh man, he’s gonna puke. I shouldn’t’ve taken him on this long of a flight. I should’ve just flown a couple of patterns and called it a day. We could’ve just watched airplanes for a while then gone over to CLT and I could’ve shown him all the jets out there. Oh yeah! I stole those puke bags from American when I flew home from OKC the other day. Well, not American, I guess it was PSA that I stole the…

“You need a bag, man? I think I have a couple in the back seat.”

“Nah, I’m good. I’ll be alright.”

Passenger throwing up
Losing the battle.

“Cool. Here, turn this air vent so it’s blowing on your face and put that cold bottle of water on your forehead. Just look out at the horizon there. You see that quarry there? That was my second checkpoint on my checkride… ”

“You got those bags?”

I’m pretty sure I leapt onto the back seat to rummage through my backpack and, WHEW! I came up with two white puke bags. I handed them to Garin and said, “Better safe than sorry.”

He held on to them while I was pointing out other landmarks and telling him “Only 13 miles until Monroe. Almost on the ground!”

Nothing.

“Monroe traffic Skyhawk 2055E 10 miles to th……..blarghghgarghgharghhhh. The north, inbound.”

I was extremely concerned with my friend’s well-being, as you can see from the photo at right.

He filled two bags then started talking again. I did end up letting him off the hook. “You know, the heat plus your nerves plus the bumpy air and all the new sensations would make nearly anybody puke. No shame in it, man,” I said. He thanked me and when we got on the ground he threw his bags away and helped me wipe down the airplane.

He swears that this wasn’t his last flight. I told him that I’d come pick him up this winter when the air is cold and smooth and he readily agreed that he’d try it again. I hope he does because I had a great, smelly time flying with my friend, even if it was a quiet ride home.

My author page at Air Facts

Feeling Helpless on my Second Solo Cross-Country

Originally published on Air Facts Journal’s website August 22, 2019.

y first solo cross-country was mostly uneventful – my instructor flew the route with me on a Monday, then the following Friday I flew it solo after my navlog and flight planning were blessed. It was a thrilling flight because I was out of the 25nm “student zone,” and I was solo!

My first airport was a small Class D (FLO) south of my home airport (EQY). I got flight following as soon as I was on my way, although the radio work was intimidating. I practiced each call before I keyed the mic and tried to anticipate the next call so I wouldn’t stammer.

After a decent landing, I told the tower that I wanted to taxi back to the end of the runway, depart VFR to the northeast, and, yes, please, I’d like flight following.

Holding short
Holding short while mixing it up with jet traffic – the big time!

I got going from runway 27 and made a right turnout over the city of Florence, South Carolina, toward my next airport – Laurinburg Maxton (MEB.) This was where the confidence set in. I climbed to 3500 ft, had the navs set and centered, marked off checkpoints, the timing was working out, and I knew exactly where I was.

By gum, this pilot thing may work out yet.

I made it over to MEB and made an OK landing. I called CTAF and announced that I was taxiing back to the runway for a VFR departure to the southwest. I got going from runway 23 and departed straight out toward the next airport (BBP), which is only 21 nm away.

I eventually saw the airport and entered the pattern. I was a bit off my game due to the short flight so I was farther behind the airplane that I allowed myself to realize. When I turned final, I knew I was fast but I didn’t do anything to fix it. I dumped full flaps and got it slowed a little bit, but, as I crossed the thousand-footers, I was still flying at around 90 knots.

I tried to put it down, but ended up skipping across the runway like a dumb stone across a lake. That stone knew better! I set the throttle to full power and went around. Even after everything I’ve read and all the sage advice from veteran pilots, including my instructor, I felt a bit of a ding in my pride at having to go around. I fought the urge to just call it a landing, head homeward, and tuck my tail between my legs. Instead, I made another circuit in the pattern and landed uneventfully. It’s funny how the runway gets bigger when you’re flying slower.

The leg back home to EQY was an easy one. I kept the river off my left wing to highway 74, then followed that west all the way home. All that was left was for me to bask in the relief and satisfaction of successfully flying my first solo cross-country.

“Great!” my instructor said. We’ll call him Ron, because that’s his name. “You need a little bit more solo cross-country time, so go do another one.”

Damn. Didn’t see that coming.

He went on. “And this time, go to at least one airport you’ve never been to before. Make it a towered field.”

What’s the word for being excited and scared at the same time? Anxious? Yeah. That’s what I was.

Departing FLO
Busier airspace means more communications training.

Six days later, I was off again. I flew the first leg down to FLO because I needed more towered field experience and I was familiar with the route. From FLO, I headed northwest to Greenville Downtown (GMU).

I was keeping I-20 off my left wing when Shaw approach asked me to deviate 30 degrees to the left because they were throwing people out of airplanes over Camden. Yet another reason to always get flight following when flying VFR – Camden (CDN) isn’t marked as a meat missile airport, yet there they were. I kept my eyes out for chutes but never saw any.

My flight planning was fairly simple. I was following I-20 west out of Florence for about 50 miles, over the south side of Lake Monticello, then I-26 west to I-385 right into GMU. I had checkpoints along the way that made it virtually impossible for me to get lost. I made my way across the lake and, instead of spotting the I-385 loop, Greer approach said, “November five-five-echo, gear red tie fact $*&#%^.”

I heard my tail number but the words that came after it didn’t make sense. I keyed the mic: “Greer approach, five-five echo, could you please repeat?”

“November five-five echo, cleared direct gobbledygook.”

A couple of things went through my mind at this point. First and foremost, I didn’t want to sound ignorant and inexperienced… like a student pilot… but I also didn’t want to die, and I didn’t want to make the nightly news. I decided pretty quickly that my pride was worth far less than my desire to have a successful cross-country. I breathed deeply, keyed the mic and said, “Greer approach, Skyhawk two-zero-five-five echo, I’m a student pilot and I have no idea what you just asked me to do.”

Obviously stifling a chuckle, I heard back, “November-five-five echo, roger, fly heading three-three-zero. Descend and maintain three thousand.”

I figured out later that what he was telling me is that I was cleared direct JUDKY, which is the Initial Approach Fix for the ILS Z Rwy 1. I could easily make that happen now, but at the time I was barely able to use the GPS to go direct to an airport.

I set my heading for 330 and descended to 3000 ft. The wind was a little gustier than I had planned and there were a few more clouds around than I was anticipating and the approach controller was pretty busy and I was a little distracted by trying to keep Donaldson airport off my left wing and I needed to enrichen the mixture and did I run the checklist and where did he say the traffic was and…

Panel
Keeping everything in order can quickly lead to task saturation.

Task saturation is very easily reached as a student pilot and is sometimes difficult to recognize. I was on a long final for runway 1 and realized that I never got the ATIS. I switched over to the ATIS frequency and wrote it all down. Back on approach, they called me and told me… something. I don’t remember what it was, but I read it back. They advised me to contact the tower so I did. Tower said, “Cleared to land runway 1. Wind is something across the runway, gusting to more across the runway.”

GULP. That wasn’t in the TAF.

“Cleared to land. One. Five-five-echo.”

I was on short final and bucking around like crazy while trying to hold the centerline.  My hands were sweating and I felt like I was just along for the ride. I made it over the numbers and was doing a decent job of tracking the centerline. I put the mains down and I must’ve neutralized the ailerons or something because the plane felt like a leaf in a fall breeze and drifted, no, bounded, toward the left side of the runway. With gusto!

I cranked the ailerons to the right and I may or may not have used rudder and/or brakes to correct to the right. I don’t remember. What I do remember, vividly, is a runway edge light passing under my wing and, thankfully, outside of the range of the left main gear, but only just. I was skidding sideways and had no control at all. Being helpless sucks. Let me rephrase that… Feeling helpless sucks. I certainly wasn’t helpless; only inexperienced and behind the airplane.

I got the airplane under control and back to the centerline. The taxi to the ramp is a bit blurry. I remember taking the wrong taxiway or intersection and ground having to help me out a bit. I taxied to the Runway Cafe on the field and shut down.

I sat down, still a bit rattled, and ate lunch.

Parked on ramp
Is that the pilot’s pride dripping off the belly?

As I was finishing up, I was still shaking my head at the memory of almost taking out a few lights. The realization hit me that I had to fly myself home, so I needed to get my head right. I analyzed what went wrong, but, more importantly, what went right. I convinced myself that yes, the crosswind approach and landing could have – should have – been better. When I realized that I was nothing more than a solo passenger on a bad approach, I should have initiated a go-around and told the tower that I’d like to try it again. Instead, I fell victim to some of the classic traps. I continued an approach that I knew wasn’t stable, and I told myself that everything would work out. Thankfully, everything did work out this time, but next time it might not.

After I finished lunch and felt that I was in the right frame of mind, I sat in the airplane for a few minutes before turning the master switch on. I wanted to make sure – really sure – that I wasn’t going to kill myself as I was heading home. I may have made a bad judgment call, but that didn’t make me a bad pilot.

I started the engine and set everything up. I was holding short at the end of the runway, running the checklist one more time. Look left, look right. Take a deep breath, chin up, key the mic, “Greenville tower, Skyhawk five-five-echo, holding short runway one, ready for departure.” And I was.

The flight home was utterly, and blissfully, uneventful.

My author page at Air Facts is here.