About Chris

I have retired from my airline job but my passion is still flying. I want to write and teach as much as I can, as long as I can.

Nothing for Humanity

Our society has made a u-turn. Our democracy has left behind the vision of the Founding Fathers. Our obsession with the moral fibre and hard work of the individual has morphed subtly into a passion for making as much money as possible.

In today’s column, Inequality is a Choice, Nicholas Kristof reports that the Wall Street bonus pool in 2014 was roughly twice the total annual earnings of all Americans working full time at the federal minimum wage.

Perhaps it is time to ask about the purpose of our work. Is it to make as much money as possible? Enough to feed our family? Or should there also be a non-financial component to our work? Should we, as in friendship and love, be thinking about how our work might benefit others?

Oh, I know. I am naive and an idealist. I have enough money to live on, so I have the luxury of having such thoughts. But I have never forgotten how, as a young man, I felt embarrassed and even shamed when a much-respected older friend asked, What is your exit strategy? That's the only way you'll make money out of this.

We were speaking of a venture I had started, and of course he was right. But his cynical realism hadn't appeared overnight. A sickly youth, he had used his time bedridden with rheumatic fever to read the entire library at the British estate where he was put up. He remained an autodidact and became an inventor. He left us many innovations, but as a pilot, what is important to me is that in the late 1920's he successfully flew the first inertial navigation system. The accelerometers were weights and springs. The integrators were vacuum tube circuits.

He never saw a penny from the invention. It was too soon, and nobody understood it. A generation later ICBM's provided the motive power for the idea. There was no other way to steer the missiles.

He made a modest living by designing and building devices which were the spawn of more modest ideas. According to the doctors, he was living on borrowed time because his heart had been damaged by the rheumatic fever. He lived into his nineties. He did sell his company. I believe he had a good death.

I am not the first to point out that Wall Street, which began as a legitimate instrument for capital formation, now produces nothing that benefits society. Nor am I the first to ring alarms when CEO's make four hundred times the average wage at their companies. But perhaps there is method to this madness. Perhaps this Wall Street bonus pool and these CEO salaries are the heroin which blunts the pain of uselessness. These rich folk, for the moment, are in a pleasant haze of denial. But truth settles on us all, sooner or later. Many of them will not have a good death.

The Tiny Diamond


My head is beginning the switch to go-around mode. I glance up at 100 above, and see nothing. No difference from 1000 above. If I don't see something soon . . .

Minimums. No contact. My hand is on the throttle, my eyes on the PFD. My wife says, I see lights. On the ground.

I glance up again, just for a peek. Two red runway end lights, just where they should be.

“I'm going back in.”


The METARS for Champaign, IL (KCMI), our destination, have been between 200 and 500 overcast most of the day. KCMI has been a red dot (low IFR) on my iPad (I'm using the ForeFlight app), but near KCMI, in Indiana and Ohio, are numerous blue (marginal VFR) and even a few green (VFR) dots. The air mass below 10,000 feet is warm. It is +8°C on the ground and  +5°C here at 8000 feet. But that warm air has been moving in over cold ground, a recipe for fog. All day we have been cruising in the clear over a solid undercast. Here is the scene as we approach Top Of Descent:IMG_0774-001The setting sun is not helping the weather: the new ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) gives the wind as 160° at 11 knots and the ceiling/visibility as 200 feet and 3/4 mile. The RVR (Runway Visual Range) on runway 32R is 5000 varying to 6000 feet. The approaches in use (in theory) are 14L and 22.

For reference, here is the airport diagram:

IMG_0168During the last hour Terre Haute, IN (KHUF) has emerged as the new, practical alternate. Now it's time to finalize the approach and missed approach plans before things get busy.

At 8000 feet the wind is strong out of the south-southwest, backing around to 160/11 on the surface. My plan is to do the GPS LPV to runway 14L, and then if I can't see enough to land, do an ILS to the other end, 32R. That would have the advantage MALSR (approach lights) and PAPI (visual approach slope lights), which would make the transition to visual flight a lot easier.

Here we go. I check in with Champaign approach with the ATIS. She says cheerfully, what would you like? I request direct ORANJ for the LPV 14L approach. I pronounce it like the French word, with the accent on the second syllable. That's my take on the J. Sure, she says. Cleared direct orange and cleared for the RNAV 14L approach.

IMG_0166A digression is in order here. My first introduction to glass in the cockpit was the B-767, which I flew in the early 1980's as a First Officer. Boeing's philosophy was to make a track up display, which had the advantage of making an IFR approach easy. Fly the airplane so the track arrow on the HSI (Horizontal Situation Indicator) points up. But what about heading? In the Boeing, as I recall, there was a pointed tuque (triangle atop a square) which represented heading, and was of course, like the airplane, sitting off to one side in a crosswind.

It seemed wrong to me. Heading is where the airplane is pointing, which is where I am pointing if I'm sitting straight in my seat. So I was pleasantly surprised when I transitioned to my next glass airplane, the A-320, in 1995. The Airbus has heading up displays. And (I suppose just because that's the way my head is wired) I found it even easier to fly than the B-767. I remember, In my first year on the airplane, being cleared while on downwind for an ILS 18 at Val D'Or, Quebec. Instead of a full approach with procedure turn (there is no radar up there – or least there wasn't in 1995), I vectored myself onto an intercept like a controller with radar would have done.

Nothing is perfect. The Airbus is so highly automated, its fly-by-wire so distant from normal airplane feedback (no trim feel), that I was, I later realized, losing skills as I vectored myself for that approach using the heading bug.

Today I am going to need all the skills I can muster. True, I have been working hard for more than two years to regain what I once had. And I have had expert help: Andrew Boyd at Smiths Falls, Ontario. But I am seventy years old and tonight I am tired. This is the third leg today, and I have been airborne six and a half hours. The Bonanza does not have an autopilot, so all the flying, including an ILS at Albany, NY and an RNAV LNAV+V at Marion, OH, has been by hand. In deciding whether to even try the approach, the airplane and equipment and regulatory limitations fade in importance. My own limitations have moved into first place.

But I have good equipment and I am thoroughly used to it. Here is my Primary Flight Display, an Aspen 1000 Pro.

IMG_0919-001As soon as we pass the RRRED intersection (The Initial Approach Fix; head of the “T” on the chart) the localizer and glide slope scales will appear on the top half of the display. These are the green diamonds you see above. My tired eyes, doing their instrument scan ever more rapidly as we move down the narrowing cone of the approach toward the runway, won't have to move very far. The display is more or less the size you see above, so within and inch of the tip of the airplane symbol (attitude) I have localizer, glideslope, airspeed, and altitude. Just below the localizer scale is a data space with TAS (true airspeed) GS (groundspeed) and wind (148°/16 kt on the display above). But there is a more important piece of information, arguably one of the most important: track.

In the old days we flew a precision approach by guesswork: we flew a heading and a rate of descent and noted, over time, what happened. If the localizer and glideslope stayed centred, we had made good guesses. But if, for example, the loc indicator (needle or diamond) has moved right of center, it means we have drifted left off the centerline. What we do not do is turn right until the needle centres again. That was the technique Bill B. used in his Tri-Pacer down in New Jersey in 1969. I remember him saying, that loc needle was like a #$%# windshield wiper!

No. What we are doing in our heads is say, that 155° heading was not enough. We have a crosswind from the right. We'll turn right to 165° to re-intercept, then turn back to 160° and see what that does. Our heads are remembering the effect over time of various headings, and deducing what heading it will take to track the localizer. We do the same with the glideslope, deducing what rate of descent it will take to keep the needle centred. As we get close to minimums, down at the pointy end of the cone of the approach, those heading changes will be two degrees or less, and any deviation will have to be corrected more quickly. In effect our brains are doing Calculus: noting change over time and rate of change, differentiating. That is a lot of work. A lot of intense, hard, rapid work. I'm not sure I'm up to it tonight.

But wait: I don't have to. Move your eyes down another inch on the display. Just below the heading (163°) is the green tip of the track arrow, representing the on-course line of the approach.

If you look carefully, you can see a small aqua diamond superimposed on the arrowhead. That's where it is supposed to be, because the diamond is the aircraft's track, the track made good over the ground, even though the airplane is flying a heading through the air and being blown sideways by the wind.

Where does this information come from? The GPS. The GPS is computing position about once per second. Then it uses the Calculus, that great mathematical technique invented by Newton and Leibniz, to differentiate the series of positions (dS/dt) and calculate velocity, a vector, which has both speed and direction. These are displayed on the Aspen PFD as groundspeed (GS) and track (where the diamond is on the compass rose).

Having track was what made the B-767 and the A-320 easy to fly on instruments. A computer is doing the calculation you would otherwise have to do continuously in your head. And the Aspen has my favourite, the heading up display. So my scan now goes something like this:

  • Attitude? Correct if not on target. Now, bypass loc and glideslope, because they will still be where they were two seconds ago – centred.
  • Track Diamond? Is it on the tip of the track arrow? If not, turn immediately to put it back on.
  • Note heading on the way back up. That's the heading that works, at least for the moment.
  • Loc and Glideslope still centred? Whew. Caught that one in time.

What is the logic here? First you have to be on the localizer. Then, you have to steer so that the aircraft track made good (the diamond) is the same as the localizer track (the green arrow). That way what's good will stay good, because two seconds or ten seconds from now the aircraft will have moved along the localizer, not drifted off. The Track will be the same as the Desired Track.

That is the centre of the scan, the part repeated every cycle, a second or two apart as you get near minimums. With that diamond where it is supposed to be you can add another parameter or two to each cycle of the scan: airspeed, altitude, glideslope trend.

Now my talking to myself will perhaps make some sense. I have briefed the approach and the missed approach, speaking aloud both to keep myself focused and to keep my wife (not a pilot but a tremendous help) in the loop. We have passed ORANJ.

OK, we're slow here on base leg. A direct headwind and almost forty knots. Yeah, we're in cloud already. Hardly noticed. Get that landing light off. And the strobe, too. Go dark. Temp's good: +8°C. Diamond on the needle. Seventeen inches. Hold 3000 and intercept from there. Got gear speed. A little slower: sixteen inches. Wind's starting to back: 200/35. Diamond on the needle. (I don't know why I called it the needle instead of the arrow, but I did).

Bonanza Quebec Romeo Victor, contact tower one two zero dezimal four.

Quebec Romeo Victor, 120.4. See ya.

Switch freqs. Leave Approach in the standby for the miss. Diamond on the needle. Level three. Two from RRRED.

Champaign Tower,  Bonanza Charlie Foxtrot Quebec Romeo Victor on the RNAV 14L.

Quebec Romeo Victor, cleared to land runway one four left.

That's it. Now work. Should be under the slope at three at RRRED. Diamond on the needle. Watch for the turn alert on the Garmin. There it is: 8 seconds. Won't get the slope 'till we pass. Speed's slow enough: catch it. Eighteen inches. Diamond on the needle. 2 seconds. Turn left to 135° NOW. Not too fast. Diamond to 135°, not heading. Steady. OK, to waypoint now GRANJ. That's the FAF. And there's the loc and glideslope scales. Diamond on the needle. Heading 155°. Glideslope alive. Stand by for the gear. Diamond on the needle. Diamond keeps drifting left. More right rudder. Remember, 155° heading works.

OK, gear down. Trim. Fifteen inches should work. Diamond on the needle, 155°. Sagging under. Sixteen and a half inches. Want 90 knots and 300-400 feet per minute. Green light and down on the tape. Glideslope's good. Try sixteen inches. Diamond on the needle. GUMP check. Gas, right tank.  Diamond on the needle. Trim and power good. Holding the slope. Undercarriage: green and tape.  Diamond on the needle. Mixture rich. Prop fine. Here comes GRANJ. 2700. Missed Approach 2600, set. Diamond on the needle. Wind's backing some more. 180/34. Diamond on the needle. Still need 155° heading. Trim and speed good. Attitude's plus 2 1/2°. Not going to see much tonight at that attitude. Flap 10°. Trim. Diamond on the needle. That's better: attitude zero. One thousand to go.

I say that passing 2000 feet MSL. In the briefing I have rehearsed what minimums will look like on the old round altimeter as well as putting the number, 960, into the MIN window on the Aspen. 960 is 1000, the top of the dial, twelve o'clock. Here at 2000 we're a thousand above. My work now is to keep the airplane in the cone, to make this approach as accurate as possible, because there will be no room for any maneuvering at all at minimums. It will be right on or go around.

I am working really hard, and I almost feel physical pain when I look down and see that tiny diamond has moved. I haul it back quick with sharp, ten-degree bank turns that last for a second or two. I probably should be steering with my feet, but I haven't practiced that and now is not the time. I am sweating.

Diamond on the needle. Wind 180/30. Heading maybe 154°. Ground wind's 160/11. Watch for the change. Five hundred to go. Diamond on the needle. Changing now. Heading 152°. Speed's good. Gonna have to taper off the power a bit after we lose the wind. Diamond on the needle. Follow the change. Wind 180/25. Good, the change is not too abrupt. Diamond on the needle. Assess: loc and slope good. Speed's up a bit, fifteen inches and that'll be it. Diamond on the needle. A hundred above. Sneak a peek. Nothing. Just like a thousand above. Hand on the throttle. You'll have to pin 10° nose-up on the missed approach. That's gonna take a good push at full power. Diamond on the needle. Hang on. Heading 150°.

 I hear the tiny ping from the Aspen as we arrive at minimums. Insulated by the noise-cancelling headset, it seems like it is coming from another planet. In my peripheral vision, there is nothing. Not even a glow. My wife says,

“I see lights! On the ground!”

I look up. There are two fuzzy runway end lights, right where they should be.

“I'm going back in.”

What I mean is that my eyes are going back in, to the Primary Flight Display. When I glanced outside, I saw enough to know that the runway environment was where it should be, but also to know for sure that I would have no cues about height and very little about alignment if my eyes stayed outside. In my 500 millisecond glance the red lights were blurry. Sure, my wife had seen lights on the ground, but that is looking more or less straight down. My red runway end lights were ahead, farther away because of the slant range. And the runway itself, even further away and at a shallower angle,  was invisible. That means there is no ceiling as such, merely a vertical visibility.

But the METAR had been between 1/2 mile and 3/4 mile visibility all afternoon, and the ATIS and the tower were saying 3/4 mile. Best of all, the RVR (admittedly on the far end of the runway, near the touchdown zone for 32R) was 6000 feet. So at ground level, at the far end of the runway, the visibility is more than a mile.

I decide to fly it down to 100 feet, if I can keep it locked on the localizer and glideslope. I know these are not radio aids, locally transmitting on VHF and UHF like real, legacy localizers and glideslopes. Instead they are calculated from a series of positions relative to the runway in three dimensions. But the worst case accuracy for a WAAS GPS is a spherical error of 7.6 meters (25 feet), and the demonstrated accuracy (by the NTSB) is 1.3 meters (4 feet). So with this GPS localizer and glideslope nailed, I have no worries about not landing on the runway.

Diamond on the needle. Pull slightly to correct that sag. Wings level. Diamond on the needle. Heading 145°.

I look out again. Rows of runway lights. I don't remember how many. The visibility is better. Not much better, but better. The runway centreline paint is now visible. I hold attitude and wind off the power, using the vernier control. One of my better landings, God knows why.

Bonanza Quebec Romeo Victor, um, are you down? We can't see you.

Yeah, we're rolling out.

We are down to taxi speed and passing the C1. The visibility is better at ground level. I switch on the upper landing light.

Oh, now we have you, Quebec Romeo Victor. Cleared across 22 and into the ramp via Bravo. Stay with me.

History, Rules, and Politics (not to mention the Bottom Line)

The girl behind the desk at FlightStar, the FBO, tells my wife we are the only airplane that has landed at Champaign since she started her shift at 2PM. (We landed just before six.) Our son picks us up, and he also has to pick up a colleague flying in from Chicago. We hang around the main terminal for awhile. The flight winds up cancelling. I begin to wonder if I should feel bad for landing.

I recently read a brief history of low visibility approach techniques. It was by Jack Desmarais in Position Report, the journal of RAPCAN, the retired airline pilots of Canada. I don't have it here so I'll summarize as best I can.

The military developed techniques such as the PMA (Pilot-Monitored Approach), where one pilot flew the approach and go-around on instruments, and the other pilot stayed heads up and took control and landed the aircraft if he had sufficient visual references. This system had the advantage that neither pilot had to transition, to go from instrument to visual flight. Successful approaches were made even in zero-zero conditions, especially after the development of heads up systems, where flight path information was projected onto the windshield, so the pilots' eyes did not have to move.

But the airlines and the manufacturers moved in a different direction: to autoflight and autoland. Dual and triple-redundant autopilot systems and radar altimeters enabled a progression from CAT II (100 feet) to CAT III (autoland). Of course there were limitations: RVR (visibility), wind (not too strong) and equipment (everything had to be working.) There were approach bans (can't go beyond the outer marker if the visibility is below x or y) and procedures (go around if x or y fails before this point or that point). There were so many rules you almost forgot you were pulling off this amazing stunt. And it wasn't you anyway, it was you watching autopilots. So what equipment did the commuter airliners have tonight? Autopilots, for sure. (The Bonanza does not have one). But do they have WAAS GPS and glass PFD's like the Bonanza does? I'm not sure.

The bottom line is that 32R is not a CAT III runway, and the wind was 160/11, making it on (or just above) the tailwind limit for most airliners. So for one reason or another, autoland was probably not on.

Then there is the economics of it. The airline flight we were waiting for was a turn out of Chicago. Would it make economic sense to send the airplane down to try an approach? Probably not.

Why me?

Reflecting later on the approach, the first thing that came to mind was that the ATIS was reporting 200-foot ceiling and 3/4 mile visibility – exactly the limits for the LPV approach on 14L. What could they see from the tower? Were they helping me out? Luring me in?

Neither, of course. As Pilot in Command, the decision to land is mine. If they were calling the weather zero-zero and I landed, they would have to report me. That's paperwork, and if I had a compelling case for my decision, the paperwork wouldn't go anywhere. And anyway, in this business, if it is done right, there is no room for gotcha's. There is room only for teamwork.

And teamwork is what I got. The controllers cleared me for the approach as requested, and the tower cleared me to land on first contact, and then kept radio silence and watched on their radar. I could concentrate when I needed to. They broke the silence only when we had slowed almost to taxi speed, to confirm we were on the runway. ATC gets 100% on that one.

So I have made peace with it. I made my decisions as Pilot in Command, and our colleagues in Air Traffic Control supported us all the way. The airlines and aircraft manufacturers made their decisions, too, betting everything on autoland. Sometimes the little guy can do the job by hand when they can't.

Old and tired as I was, though, I couldn't have done it without the tiny diamond. For the next couple of days, the song keeps repeating in my head:

Diamond on the needle,

Diamond on the needle,

Diamonds on the soles of her shoes.

Pace, Paul Simon.


P.S. Oh, and here is Arcadia in Hangar 9 at FlightStar, after her work was done for the day.



What is Not Politics

The New York Times, Sunday, December 7, 2014

Two articles in today's New York Times caught my eye: Energy Firms in Secretive Alliance With Attorneys General, and Thomas Friedman's column How ISIS Drives Muslims From Islam. The first describes how State Attorneys General submit to Congress letters written for them by energy  executives, and the second how a growing number of Muslims, sickened by ISIS, are turning from Islam to Christianity or atheism. In the latter, Friedman describes how Dr. Alyaa Gad, an Egyptian doctor living in Switzerland, started a hashtag which translates as why we reject implementing Shariah. She said, I have nothing against religion, but I am against using it as a political system.

Bingo, I thought. And the energy people are using capitalism as a political system.

Quebec, Canada

I have lived in Montreal for most of my life. Quebec politics are interesting, although they are perhaps slightly to the left of the mean in the USA. We have single-payer health care, for example. But what I wanted to bring up was that René Levèsque, the founder of the Parti Québecois, was instrumental in bringing in some of the best campaign finance law in North America. We felt the benefit in last April's provincial election, when Pauline Marois, the Premier and head of Levèsque's Parti Québecois, was ousted in a drubbing that surprised everyone. She had become demagogic, and no amount of money could save her from the voters.

Don't get me wrong. Quebec is not perfect, nor is Canada. A leftist, government knows best system breeds an entrenched civil service. It is sometimes not pretty, and it gets really nasty when it comes to software. Hint: Obamacare liftoff. But on the whole, I am content – or at least resigned. Because politics is politics.

Back in the USA

My wife grew up in the USA. Our kids and grandkids are there. Even I spend several months of the year there, visiting them. I am the only one in my family who is not a citizen and can't vote down south. But that doesn't stop me from stupefaction when I consider that in the USA, thanks to Citizens United, a corporation is, in effect, a super-citizen. Capitalism is great, and I love the openness to innovation it makes possible, but it is not a political system.

A Gift for Humanity


My wife and I went to a performance of Messiah last night, as we have done every year for the last forty or so. This year it was Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec, at the new Montreal Symphony Hall. Perhaps it is the forty years, or my age, or my familiarity with the words after all this time. But I have never seen four soloists tell the story as these did. They were consummate actors as well as musicians and singers.

Or perhaps the evening was more emotional than usual because we learned right there in the hall that Bernard Labadie, the founding director of Les Violons, has been ill and would not be conducting. Instead Trevor Pinnock is leading the group for the rest of the year. Maestro Pinnock made a short announcement about how we have all come to love Messiah, about how something special happens when we gather like this, about how the work is a gift to humanity, and about how tonight we are all here celebrating it together for Bernard as well as for ourselves.

Perhaps that was the context for me: listening to the story, the great words and the sublime music, and musing on why this gift of George Friderick Handel (1685-1759) is so loved and so important to us.


Comfort Ye, my people. Your warfare is accomplished. Your iniquity is pardoned. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

These words, of course, are from Part 1 of Messiah. The librettist, Charles Jennens, took them word for word from his beloved King James Bible.

New Testament? No, Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who lived, scholars believe, in the eighth century B.C.


He was despised and rejected of men. Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows!

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn.

Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; He is full of heaviness. He looked for some to have pity on Him, but there was no man, neither found He any to comfort Him.

He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of Thy people He was stricken.

Who is this man? Jesus of Nazareth?

No. Once again the text is from the Torah. Isaiah and Psalms. Hundreds of years before Christ.

Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? Let us break their bonds asunder; and cast away their yokes from us.

He that dwelleth in Heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.

Psalms, once again.


OK, this last is from the other end of the Bible: Revelation.

Death and Resurrection

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Surely now we are in the New Testament? No. This is Job 19:25-26. For some reason I think of how a Jewish friend described a seder:

People wanted to do bad things to us. We were in great danger. Somehow, with the help of God, we survived. Let's eat!

I admit that Comfort, Forgiveness, and Death and Resurrection are my names for the three parts of Messiah. And here we are at last, at the last of the three. Can there be such things as death and resurrection?

From now on most of the text is from Corinthians.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

What does that mean? Does it matter? Why does it give me such comfort?

Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

I do not think of my self as religious, as a believer. I think of myself more as a doubter, someone more like my five-year-old grandson, who says, Oh, why?

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.

I don't know what the words mean, but they are great words, comforting words, words that have survived because they have meaning for humanity.

Oh death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

Straightforward enough. But then:

The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.

Don't ask me. But I'll think about it, as I do every year.

Mon Pays c'est l'Hiver

As we emerge from Place des Arts, it is snowing. When we came downtown it was 15° F and blowing. Now it feels like 30°. It always feels warmer when it snows. The city, my city, the one I have known since childhood, is beautiful.

I don't know about immortality. But wait – in a way I do. Handel may not be here in the flesh, but I have just spent three hours with him, and I feel wonderful.

Fact and Story

Then and Now

Story is as old as language. The ancient bards sang the stories of heroes. Oral tradition mirrored the world to our ancestors, allowing them to find meaning in their rough and difficult lives. The written word was in the future.

Fact in those days was immediate, personal, and deadly. I slew the beast. I slew the aggressor. I am slain.

Today what passes for fact is omnipresent. The internet gives us access to a store of data that is growing exponentially. It follows us around on our smartphones. There is, it seems, no escaping all this. But is it fact?


The Gutenberg Bible was the internet of its day, enabling a rapid expansion of knowledge, both fact and fiction. But printing presses are slower than the net. Scholarship and education grew along with libraries and the number of books. A critical intelligence questioned: Who is the author? Is this a story? History? Science? Philosophy? Fact? What is fact, anyway?

The Net

The internet is not yet a generation old. It followed fast in the footsteps of television. The written word is, one could argue, only a minor part of today's vast trove of accessible data. Photos, audio and video, often edited for maximum punch, saturate our perception and shorten our attention span. We search for data that corroborates our worldview. Critical intelligence is rare. There is a new oxymoron: reality TV.


Every human being has a worldview. Consciously or not, we apply meaning to our lives. It is a human skill that is necessary for survival. We tell a story about ourselves.

But the rub is this: we expand our story to embrace the world we know. We assign good guys and bad guys and even suppose that conspiracies are the reason behind this and that. Then we are surprised when others have different views. We feel threatened and go to the internet to find “proof” for our theories. Is it any wonder our politics has become dysfunctional?

OK,  So . . .

I am as guilty as the next person. I feel road rage. I harbour a grudge. I am rude, sometimes without meaning to be. Sometimes I rage (usually inwardly, but not always) against someone's convictions which I think are JUST WRONG!

On the other hand, I love my friends and family, warts and all. Their shortcomings/eccentricities/weaknesses are part of who they are, just as mine are. How do I square love  with intolerance?


I have known my friends and loved ones long enough to know their story. Not the story of their lives – their story. The one they tell themselves, as I tell myself mine. And since we are alive, these stories are evolving. Like the songs of old, they change subtly with each telling.

We could do worse than to listen.

Hangars and History

History emerges during re-enactment of 1939 transcontinental flight

The sense of history crept up on me. At first it was just my own history: I remember a layover in North Bay in 1973. I was a very green First Officer on the DC-9. The layover stuck in my mind because of the 2-needle red pines along the shore of Lake Nipissing, where I went for a walk. They were the same pines that crowd the cottage on Belmont Lake where my parents met and where I have been going all my life. Now the North Bay shoreline has been nicely updated as a park, accessible to all. The pines, as far as I could see, have gone.

A friend had told me to check out the hangar in Kapuskasing. Made of concrete blocks, it was one of the original Trans Canada Air Lines hangars from the 1930's.

IMG_0096But there were no echos from the past. The hangar has been insulated and re-sided and is now used for vehicle maintenance. The lack of echoes may also have been brought on by the silence of the airport. The only aircraft movement I saw beside my own was an Ontario Hydro One helicopter which made an approach to the ramp in front of the Terminal and hover-taxied over to the gas pumps. I talked to some of the guys on board. They were going home from their job surveying for a new line. The runway was unused, except for me and the airport truck scaring off birds. When I left Sunday morning I was the only soul abroad, except for the birds. I backtracked runway 35 in the rain like a crazy man, weaving back and forth to scare them off.

But there was a rainbow for the takeoff run.

IMG_0106Sunday was the longest flight of the re-enactment: Kapuskasing to Winnipeg: 577 nautical miles; about four hours. I wanted to do it in one leg like the 1939 flight. But I also wanted to get there in time for the 2:30 pm tour at the Western Canada Aviation Museum.

I was late, but I caught up with the tour. Gerry Suski, the tour guide, brought each exhibit to life with his enthusiasm. And as I belatedly realized, we were walking around inside one of those original Trans Canada Air Lines hangars.

IMG_0174Here's Gerry talking about the Junkers JU-52-1M. (Gerry is bottom right, with the red pass lanyard around his neck.) It was as I took this photo that I realized that not only the exhibits were history. The beams overhead are joined with riveted gusset plates. Those hangar doors are a work of art. The flight I am re-enacting taxied up and shut down right out there, outside those doors. Parked over by the door to the restoration shop is the fuel truck that most likely fueled the 1939 Lockheed 10A.

IMG_0209In the bookstore I bought both of Shirley Render's books. Shirley has been a Manitoba MNA and is now Director of the museum. Her book Doublecross details a huge chunk of Canadian aviation history of which I was completely unaware. James A. Richardson (the new CYWG terminal building is named after him) founded Western Canada Airways in 1927. He was a visionary, talking about over the pole flights to Europe. In 1930! The Bennett government (and later the Mackenzie King government) had anointed him as the go-to man for a national airline. But both governments dithered and delayed. Then in 1937 C.D. Howe, the new Minister of Transport, founded Trans Canada Air Lines as the national carrier. Richardson died of a heart attack in 1939 at the age of 54. Or perhaps it was a broken heart. In any event, the age of the deal sealed by a handshake was already dying.

I had always admired C.D. Howe's (the Minister of Everything) energy and vision. Reading  Doublecross was like finding out Bach and Beethoven were cantankerous. No, it was more like reading how Richard Wagner, the composer if the Ring Cycle, was anti-semetic and a complete jerk.

It felt good to be flying again. Wednesday I flew to Regina, and Friday to Lethbridge. There a wonderful surprise awaited: another of the original TCA hangars, this one in pristine condition.IMG_0380

I had spoken with Geoff Price on the phone the day before to arrange for an oil change. It turns out Geoff is the owner of this beautiful hangar. He has owned it twice, in fact. He bought it in 1986; sold it in 1988. Then he bought it again in 1993. Fortunately for all of us, it has been declared a heritage site, unlike its cousin in Winnipeg, which has been sold to Calm Air. (The Western Canada Aviation Museum will move to a new facility contiguous with the airport terminal.)

Geoff came out to the ramp to meet me and immediately arranged to have the Bonanza pulled inside. Here she is during the oil change. The mechanic is Bill Mehlen.IMG_0360Geoff's hospitality was outstanding. Arcadia and I have never felt more at home. And Geoff can tell stories!

In the early days there was a control tower up there on the roof. See that black pipe up there where it comes down through the ceiling? That was the controllers' pee tube.

OK, look carefully at the floor. See there, near the middle? How there's a sort of shallow mound? That's where the fire pit was, when they were building this place. They would start the fire with oak wood, and when they got that going they'd add coal. Heat up those one-inch rivets cherry red. They wore big gauntlets. They'd grab a red-hot rivet and throw it up to the rafters, where one of the two guys up there would catch it. Then they'd fit it, buck it, and forge it in place in seconds, still red-hot.IMG_0370Yep, that's a lot of rivets.

B-26 firebomber used to live here. Then for awhile Brodeur owned the place. Canned beans and peas. Stored the cases of cans here. Place was full right up to the roof.

The hangar was built by Dominion Bridge. The doors? Built by Richards Wilcox, a company owned by Dominion Bridge. What? Yeah, they're unique. Let me show you. See, first the bottom half rises. Then if you need full height . . .IMG_0383. . . OK, yeah – there's the motor. And the transmission. See how it drives two output shafts? The lower shaft lifts the bottom half of the door with those chains. Then the top shaft tilts the whole assembly up using those lever arms.IMG_0595Come see some of the pictures. There's TCA's route structure in 1939. And here's the history of the four airports. See that little photo in the middle? That's this hangar in 1939, when TCA owned it.IMG_0355Saturday I flew the last leg to Vancouver. It was like flying through a time-tunnel.

In Lethbridge I felt as if I could touch 1939. That feeling faded away on descent and approach into Vancouver. It was the CYVR I remember but busier, with B-777 traffic sliding under us, multiple runway and approach changes, and frantic media. From slow deep breathing to a heart-pounding pace.

But on the way were the Rockies, and we flew history, following the Green One Airway as best we could, turning toward Hope as the poor pilots of TCA 810 did not. I think of them and of all of Canada's pilots. Rest in peace, you who have passed on.


Open Net Letter to Sir Richard Branson


Dear Sir Richard,

I offer you my heartfelt condolences on your loss: a life, a spacecraft, money, and momentum. The life and the aircraft will be missed. The money and momentum can be made up. But as in every disaster, there is also opportunity.

I have been a pilot for nearly fifty years, and in my trade accidents are fodder: nearly always, there is something vital to be learned. The accumulation of this knowledge is what allows us to hone our skills and make our missions safer.

Spaceship Two awakes powerful echoes from the past. We have been here before and moved on.


The following is fiction. I look to the net for facts: what I find there may or may not be true. Using what I find I make up a story. My hope is to get everyone thinking about the way forward while we wait for the NTSB. Please accept my offering as help, and as hope for the future for this very special project.

Test Flying

One pilot friend has given up test flying. Another still does it and has flown an amazing number of types. His preparation method is simple: know and prioritize the systems. Knowing means finding everything you can and studying, asking questions in a practical way. Prioritizing means asking the question, what is going to kill me first?

Often it is the fuel system. But Spaceship Two's rocket motor was designed to be simple. Sure, it's new, and could kill us, but is it first in line?

Look instead at the flight envelope: subsonic atmospheric flight as an airplane or glider. High Q, high G, supersonic flight as a rocket plane. Ballistic flight as a near-spaceship. Re-entry as a badminton bird. Subsonic glide to landing.

Then look at configuration. Airplanes have flap and gear speeds. Maneuvering speeds. Spaceship Two is a chameleon: an airplane/spaceship/shuttlecock. Combine flight envelope and configuration and you have a whole world of limitations.

The Flight

Our pilots have trained in the fixed-base simulator. The clever helmet G sim has added realism to the profile. They are ready for the high G during the acceleration and pullup after rocket ignition. They are confident in their ability to glide to a landing at Mojave after re-entry.

But the real thing is frightening. It is more than training can prepare you for. It is like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The discipline required to stay exactly with the aircraft is huge. It is like learning to fly instruments in IMC and turbulence, believing what the panel says and ignoring what the body says. Only it is magnified by several factors of ten.

Pilots know that their IQ is cut in half the moment they strap in, and in half again under fear or stress. They prepare carefully, rehearsing in their heads so the real thing will not freak them out.

Our co-pilot was overwhelmed. Somewhere in his consciousness was a fear of forgetting his tasks. His mind left the present and moved ahead, rehearsing. He knew that at some point he would have to unlock the tail feathers.

The pilot was hanging on to his awareness for dear life. His field of vision had narrowed to a tiny cone centred on the Flight Director. He didn't see the co-pilot's hand reaching for the unlock lever. But he hung on to that thread of awareness and understood the ship was breaking up around him. He managed, though injured, to undo his harness and get free of his seat.

Crew Co-ordination

I am reminded strongly of Air Canada 621 in June 1970. Not in the pilots' behavior: our Spaceship Two pilots were not arguing. They had a good understanding of the ship and her systems.

No, the echo has more to do with the novelty and design of the systems and configuration. The DC-8-63's spoiler system was an early one, imperfect in its ergonomic design. The line between arming and deploying was not as sharp as, say, the later system on the DC-9, where up was arm (for landing), and up, back, and up was ground spoiler deployment (for a rejected takeoff).

Spaceship Two's feather system is an excellent mechanical and aerodynamic design. The lock can hold the feathers in the airplane position even at high Q in a high G powered pullup.

But crew co-ordination and Standard Operating Procedures are just as important. Our pilot did not see the co-pilot's hand reaching for the unlock lever. There was no communication:

Ready for Feather Unlock.”

Our pilot had no opportunity to say:

Negative. Standby.”


Get your $#%* hand off that f#%# lever!

He just saw the result: the breakup of the ship from aerodynamic forces.

Moving On

Let's go flying again as soon as we can. But designers, remember: it's not your ass strapped to the machine. It's the test pilots'. And they have to understand the implications of any action at any point in the flight envelope.

No, you don't have to design software to limit when the feathers can be deployed. You have to keep the pilots in the loop, not take them out of it.

But communication is all. And respect for each others' work. Bernard Zeigler designed the Airbus to be “pilot proof” and “un-stallable”. We know what happened there.

Aware of the past, analyzing accidents, we are wiser. We will respect everyone and expect the best from everyone. We will prioritize and rehearse. We will use all available means to communicate and to share information, hopes, and doubts. There will be Standard Operating Procedures. There will be verbal calls followed to the letter to eliminate misunderstanding. And there will be the joy of success.


Yours sincerely,


Former Captain



Sir Richard, how about – every once in a while – offering a seat on Virgin Galactic to a prominent climate change denier?

There is No Alternative


Philae landed today!

Rosetta achieved orbit around Comet 67P after a ten-year flight. Last night there was the decision to go – to separate Philae and begin descent to landing with an unserviceable thruster. So much excitement!

With millions of others I watched it live. Or as live as it can get when, at the speed of light, the signals take 27 minutes to reach us.

Congratulations to ESA for their accomplishment and their gutsy decision to stream live from the control room. There has been nothing like this since Neil Armstrong set foot on the  moon in 1969. My sons are all too young to remember that, to say nothing of my four grandsons. Space is back! And thank goodness for that!


It was (if I have got his name right) Daniel Neuenschwander, the head of the Swiss delegation to ESA, who, among all the speakers after the landing, got my attention. Regarding getting into space, he said, there is no alternative to co-operation.

(Now it appears the harpoons didn't fire, or haven't yet. (See ESA for details). That keeps the excitement going. I (and humanity) hope Philae can cling to the surface in that meagre gravity and keep sending us information. But this is already a major achievement, whatever happens.)

Think of the history: the USSR orbits Sputnik, and then Laika (the dog). Then a human person, Yuri Gargarin.

President Kennedy leads the USA into the “space race”, and NASA achieves the goal he sets: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.

In 2004 Burt Rutan (financed by Paul Allen) designs and builds Spaceship One and wins the X-Prize.

In 2013 China lands an (unmanned) rover on the moon.

In 2014 SpaceX (Elon Musk) soft-lands a rocket booster in the ocean.

In 2014 Spaceship Two breaks up when the wing/tail feather deploys prematurely.

There is a space race here, but it is a competition of ideas, not ideologies. A communist country pulls ahead into orbit. A democracy provides leadership and technology to land a man on the moon. A generation and a half goes by. Private entrepreneurship invents and demonstrates the badminton bird re-entry. Ditto the re-useable booster. Bravo Burt and Elon! And today a loosely joined bunch of nations has landed on a comet, opening a window onto the formation of our solar system and perhaps life itself.


What is the takeaway here?

For me, it is what Daniel Neuenschwander said. There are huge challenges facing humanity. Will we address them adequately before our planet joins Mars in its fate?

There is so much to do.

Can Burt Rutan's badminton bird re-entry be extended/combined to handle the much higher energies required for a recovery from orbit? Can we invent self-sustaining environmental systems? Can we move beyond the rocket – incredibly wasteful as it throws mass out the tail, accelerating through Newton's Third Law?

I am an optimist. I know we can do it. But it will take everybody. Not just this or that system of government. Not just private enterprise. Not just one visionary human.

Mr. Neuenschwander got it right today: there is no alternative to co-operation.

Money is the New Religion

The Mall

The upscale mall near us occupies a huge contiguous tract north of the freeway. Its enclosed Main Streets have two levels, open to the non-sky, as if each building had a balcony upstairs connected with its neighbours. At the end of each street is a gussied-up big-box store – two-story of course – opening onto the mall. Stairs, escalators, and flyover bridges connect levels and balconies, so the penitent can wander in wonder through the architecture of the age. Light filters in overhead through cloudy glass. Along the streets and balconies gaudy alcoves harbour treasures and artifacts. Seen from above, the two streets intersect, forming a cross. Soon after it was built, my wife said, That's our Chartres.


The great cathedrals embody all that was noble and profane in the Middle Ages. Although Chartres was built with remarkable speed, it was a product of several generations. Begun in 1194, it was mostly complete in 1250, by which time many of those involved with the heroic effort were second or third-generation. The stained-glass windows, miraculously preserved through centuries of war and weather, are narrative art for a time when few could read.

But there is more: the cathedral was also a free-trade zone outside the purview of the feudal lord. Merchants set up their stalls in the zone and even in the nave itself, although wine-sellers were occasionally banished to the crypt. Taxes on the stalls were payable to the clergy.

So far the activity is merely profane – that is, secular, or not connected to religion. (Profane is from the Latin pro and fanum: before the temple.) But as human custom tends to, the commercial practices proliferated and evolved, until by the late Middle Ages indulgences had become the Wall Street of the twentieth century or the indiegogo.com of the twenty-first. The Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral was capitalized by selling pardons for the use of butter in Lent.


It seems that mystery is the father of faith. The architects and artisans of Chartres responded to the beauty of the world by doing their best to compete with it. Their homage to God was an artifact and a space that educated and inspired wonder and ascribed God as the author of all. The cathedral was the railroad of the nineteenth century and the airline of the twentieth. Man as artisan constructed huge works from technologies on the edge of human understanding. Did the traveller on the Orient Express understand the physics of the steam engine? Does today's passenger understand the physics of flight or inertial navigation? Do the viewers (or the makers) of the film Gravity understand orbital mechanics?

Where am I going with this?

I admit I am groping. But we are again today in an age of indulgences. We know that capitalism and free markets are the foundation of democracy – or at least that's what everyone says. They say that we should bow to the market, should let it decide everything, or else we are threatening freedom and democracy.

Today's received wisdom is the same as is was in the Middle Ages – only the object of faith has been changed. We understand the market about as well as we understand orbital mechanics. We are invited to have faith in matters beyond our understanding. So we bow not only to technology, but also to the market and the almighty dollar.

The Range of Human Endeavour

We humans span the noble and the profane and continue into the ignoble and the self-serving. It happened with religion after Chartres was built. The practice of indulgences took a few centuries to moulder and spread, but it was one of the principal motivations behind Martin Luther's ninety-five theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther said, Wait a minute – this is not what Jesus meant at all. Thus came the Reformation and more wars and Protestantism and Christianity without profit.

Not much has changed in five hundred years. The noble – the making of art and the building of large, co-operative works – is still followed by the profane – normal commerce. But inevitably – and today is no exception –  the profane is followed by the self-serving, and the whole process is debased. We are once again at a crossroads like the one Luther faced down in 1517.

Inventive mankind has gone from barter to money to lending to banking to capital formation to finance. The average man gropes along behind progress, believing in what he cannot understand. Meanwhile elite MBA's twist the corporation (human co-operative effort) into re-structuring for maximum stakeholder value. (The definition of stakeholder is left to the MBA's). Banks no longer turn savings into investment capital but instead operate for maximum profit and market share, extracting their cut not as interest but as fees. (There is no interest rate connected with fees, so there is no appearance of usury.) Investment banks invent financial products which they peddle to pension funds and then bet against in the market, making huge profits at the expense of their customers.

These shenanigans depend on our faith and our ignorance. They twist the institutions of our society so they work not for mankind but for a small elite.

This small elite no doubt believes in itself. That, too, is human. Like all of us, they construct a world-view. They are smarter and work harder, and deserve their spoils. Their efforts are a natural winnowing.

But that is their world-view, not the Word of God. There is no reason for us to believe it.

I also understand why we believe in money. It is a matter of survival, and is getting more so every day for us, the great unwashed. But let us not worship money. That can only lead us to suckerdom, as P.T. Barnum famously observed. We would do better to open our eyes and learn and not lose the hope of human co-operative effort toward great things. Perhaps we might even tape a thesis to the door of the mall.

As inspiration we can remember Job, centuries before Christ and millennia before today's selfish deeds. Covered with boils and tempted by cynicism, he could still say:

I know that my redeemer liveth;

and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:

and though worms destroy this body,

yet in my flesh shall I see God.


Job 19:25

Learn or Die

The Race for Survival

It is time to stop fussing over religion, money, and politics, and to ponder instead what we must do to survive. I am not speaking of selfish, individual survival in the mean marketplace of today. I am speaking of the survival of the human race.

I have long felt that our fate comes down to a race between space travel and managing our planet as a closed system. Which will we learn first? Will we learn in time to survive?

We have become cynical about space travel since the triumphs of the 1960's. Why should we spend money on frills when we have more pressing needs here at home?

Why indeed. What are these pressing needs? Are they more important than survival?


It is encouraging that the USA is mobilizing doctors, nurses, and soldiers to help with the Ebola threat. It is good that we recognize that this threat knows no borders. What is less good is that we are not prepared with medication to fight the disease. The marketplace had decided that a few thousand deaths would not constitute a clientèle worthy of research. Belatedly we must mobilize our resources and make medicine.

Climate Change

Think about the contrast: Ebola strikes fear into our hearts; Climate Change is our recent euphemism for Global Warming, in itself an understatement. But Ebola is the rehearsal, the sign, the foreboding. It is undeniably here – now – in spite of the stigma and denial that encourage its spread. Is it not also a metaphor for the larger puzzle that faces us? Do we have to individually travel to the Arctic to see ice melting? Or head south to Miami as witness to the spring and fall tides backing up through the storm sewers and flooding the streets? Or perhaps this year some will instead head south to Arizona. They will see flood damage in the desert.

Odile, Polo, and now Simon, the 13th Eastern Pacific hurricane of the 2014 season, mark the profound change in the weather. Or the Jetstream sitting in Northern Canada for the last two weeks of September, cuddling an unseasonable bubble of warm air half a continent wide. In my forty-five years of flying and weather-watching I have never seen anything like it.

Change and Learning

As a label Climate Change has something right. The world is indeed changing. And as any teacher must, our world is challenging our assumptions. It is saying, I am not static, I am alive. And indeed, what is life but change?

Is our universe alive? The more we learn, the more evidence we find that everything we see is in flux, in living change; and every discovery further displaces mankind from its center. The universe is not about us.

But we can learn. The human race has the ability to learn, communicate, and record. Galileo could read Aristotle as well as observe the planets. Newton, born the year Galileo died, could continue his work forward into the Calculus, the Laws of Motion, and the foundational equation of gravity. Cannot this gift of learning lead us toward our own survival?

All Hands

The problem we face is not insurmountable. It would be embarrassing if we did not prevail. But neither is it a sure thing. It is a call for all hands on deck. And all hands does not mean the privileged, the connected, the fortunate. It means use the gifts of every soul aboard.

It does not mean indoctrinate our children with our certainties. It means lead our children out of ignorance into the fullness of their gifts, wherever it may take them.

Education takes more than a curriculum and a system. In the end it is a communication between human beings. It is a two-way conversation where the goal is to move the student beyond the teacher, into an understanding where only he can go.

So let us use our fear constructively. Let us not sit, afraid, trying to hang on to the present. The world has already moved beyond our understanding. But our gifts have not expired. Let us use them, such as they are, to encourage the gifts of others. And if every soul is engaged we will will survive.

Who Wins the Race?

It doesn't matter. Managing the planet and space travel are essentially the same problem: reversing the great frontier mentality and approaching our environment as a closed system. We can cut down the forests we grow. We can eat the food we produce. And we can breathe the air we replenish.