How's the Flying?

Have you ever written an exam paper only to forget to save it and when you go print it off, you can't find it?  Weeks ago I wrote an entire post about flying IOE and starting to fly on my own at Seaplanes only for it to not get saved and then lost forever.  Writing the same thing twice is dreadful for me so I never re-wrote it but I'm giving it another shot.  Let's see if I can catch up on a couple months of life here really quick.  That's right, months.

So, IOE... initial operating experience.  When you get a job flying people you don't just go out flying people without any direction.  Ground school was over and my checkride was done, but now it was my responsibility to find my passengers, load the aircraft with all the required frieght/mail/UPS/chill/freeze, fill out the paperwork, flight plan, and do it all on time.  Then I had to get to my destination, follow the processes there for where to park, who to talk to, what to say, get the stuff off the plane, put the other stuff on the plane, go back to Juneau, and do it all over again.  IOE is pilot babysitting until we learn what we are actually doing.  There is a minimum amount of time you have to be in IOE before you are released then there is a "shortened" minimum time with more landings involved.  With the length of legs we are doing, the landings are easy to come by in the shortened time but you still have to show sufficient competence to get out of IOE quickly.

My "Monday" rolled around and I had an assigned schedule and a company instructor for the flights.  At this point I don't remember the specifics of the flights, they have all started blending together now.  We moved people and stuff, nothing super exciting happened.  I made plenty of minor mistakes and we covered this at the end of the day.  Through the day we would talk about areas of improvement in my flying and I would work on addressing it on the next leg.  Some examples are: "Bring the flaps up as soon as you touch down to decrease lift,"  "Taxi light on right before you move and off as soon as you stop,"  "You touched down three feet left of centerline," "Plan your descents better so you arent descending at 900 feet per minute in the base turn,"  and other such things.  At the end of the day I was called into the instructor's office and there were several papers,one representing every flight and areas that needed improvement.  There were a lot of areas that needed improvement.  I got a bit annoyed at this, we were discussing things and improving them, but then to get nit-picked on every little thing at the end of the day just left a bad taste in my mouth.  I went back to the boat a little sulky.

Intropection is important.  We are very distracted people with all of the electronics and entertainment around us vying for our attention, it is easy not to look inward and identify your own failures or necessity for improvement.  I really try to self assess though, and I'm quite comfortable in my own mind.  That night I really looked inward to understand why I was sulky and if it made any sense.  I decided that right then I had the opportunity to fly in the exact way this instructor wanted me to.  If there were things he wanted me to do that I wasn't taught in traning or that felt petty, that was an opportunity for me to improve, not for me to show him he was wrong in some way.  I could strive for perfrection and and learn somthing new, so that's what I did.  I came in the next day willing to accept critique no matter how small, and do things the way he wanted.  I challenged myself to learn, change, and accomplish the level of perfection asked of me. 

Day two of IOE started off terrible.  The instructor flew the first flight due to extra poor weather conditions.  I got the people wrangeled and we loaded them up and taxied out.  While we were taxiing, dispatch called us on the radio and asked if we had a certain passenger.  I said no, they aren't on our manifest.  Turns out I grabbed the wrong manifest off the table.  There were two flight headed to this destination at the same time and I took the other airplane's paper.  What a sinking feeling that gave me.  We turned around on the taxiway, unloaded our passengers, loaded the correct passengers, then taxied out again. The instructor claimed it was his responsibility because it was his flight but really, I knew it was my failure, I grabbed the paper and called the passengers.  Either way, I have not made that mistake again, I now check the time, airplane, pilot, and destination on every manifest to make sure I have the one I need. 

After the first debacle, I flew the rest of the flights that day.  You know what?  I improved greatly.  All the little things that I wasn't doing the day before, I was doing the way the instructor wanted.  Rather than nine areas that needed improvement per flight, I had one or two, sometimes none.  The only change was my frame of mind and willingness to learn.  At the end of the day we went over the papers for each flight and it felt good.  I could see what I had done right and what I could still do better.

Day three of IOE started the same way except I didn't mess up the manifests. I got two flights in and then something happened.  We looked over the hours we flew and landings made and I was asked if I was comfortable ending IOE.  I was game so I was told the next flight I would be solo and I was kicked out of IOE in the shortened time.  How exciting!  I flew four more flights that day, learning how to get in the groove of preflight planning, aircraft loading, checklist usage, and all the tid-bits a pilot has to do apart from holding the controls of the airplane in flight.  I still made some little mistakes and had areas I knew I needed to improve but would work on those in the coming weeks.  I was safely making flights up here in Juneau and moving from an expense for the company to a revenue-maker.

Then... the weather turned to crap.  This isn't new, this is kind of the norm up here.  I've seen a LOT of really nice days this spring and summer but I have also seen a lot of junk days.  Looking back through my logbook, the seventh day after IOE, someone else flew one of my flights IFR since the weather was poor.  The day after that I was headed north in crummy weather and I turned around due to lack of visibility while flying at 800 feet above the water.  The weather is what the companies up here worry themselves about when hiring pilots.  There is a magical "Alaska time" column in most applications or at least in the interviews for jobs up here.  If you have time flying in Alaska already, they figure you can handle the weather.  If you have a fat goose egg in that column, they are unsure of your ability to handle the low visibility and quickly changing weather up here.  The expectation isn't that you make every flight in crummy weather, the expectation is that you turn around when it is junk and fly when it is safe.  That's really it. There's another note in my logbook a few days after that where I departed special VFR in the morning.  This is when the weather is poor enough the reguations call it IFR at a controlled airport but it's not bad enough to be IFR in uncontrolled airspace.  The weather in Juneau was bad but five miles away it was much better so I took off for the first flight of the day with a special VFR clearance to get into the better weather.  It wasn't dicey or dangerous, it just takes some sound decision making, planning to turn around if necessary.  The weather has been a challenge here and there is at least one coworker that I know is tired just from the mental stress of constant poor weather.  I see it as good training.  You have to be challenged in order to grow.  Your muscles don't get stronger unless you stress them and make them sore.  The same things happens with almost any skill, if you aren't challenged, you don't improve.  I have been improving up here.

The next jump in flying up here was getting to the point I could fly IFR (through the clouds rather than around them.)  I have been an IFR rated pilot for ten years but I haven't done much actual IFR flying due to lack of opportunity.  This job is an IFR job meaning it is expected I will fly IFR in hard conditions with icing and turbulence, and wind.  There was one thing I was lacking though, I didn't have 100 hours of flying in the Cessna Caravan yet.  In order to fly IFR as a single-pilot crew, you have to have 100 hours in the airplane before you're let loose.  That's fine with me.  I don't need to go boring through the icy sky on my own in a new-to-me airplane.  Well, four weeks ago in mid-June I reached that 100-hour mark.  I was told by my chief pilot that I am free to file IFR and fly some approaches on nice days to get in the groove of it.  If I wanted to take an instructor with me for my first actual IFR day, I could do that too.  So I filed IFR a few days, flew in the system, and got a hang of what goes on around here.  Since then, I've flown IFR almost weekly.  Just today I few every flight IFR because the weather was poor and it was easier to go high through the clouds than go low and maybe have to turn around due to lack of visibility.  That option has really changed the dread I would feel on bad weather days.  Now instead of wondering if I should cancel a flight, I have better tools at my disposal that make the decision more straight forward.  It doesn't mean a flight won't be canceled occasionally, it just means I don't have to run through mist and rain at low altitudes in order to get a flight done.

A note about the views.  The water here in Southeast Alaska is wild.  The tide is often 17 feet from high to low.  There are glaciers and rivers all over the place that dump loads of fresh water into the inside passage. When the tides fluctuate and the fresh water gets pushed and pulled around, you get some amazing lines in the water like I would experience at the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers in Utah.

The weather is fickle but when it is clear, you get great wide views of mountians, snow, water, and glaciers. When the weather sucks, it sucks.

So here I am, almost four months into my Alaska flying adventure.  I have become more comfortable with the area though still very respectful of the conditions.  I have learned a lot about flying in these conditions, a little about myself, and I value the time I've had so far.  I also miss home.  The desert southwest is home and I know it.  The only reason I never moved further north to Montana or Idaho was because of the cold winters and the same applies to Alaska.  The desert, rocks, juniper, and sun are calling and I won't be gone too long.


Note: I carry an open top mug to make sure I fly smooth.  If I'm not smooth, I'll spill coffee on myself.  It's a training aide. ;)

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