Going Direct: Memphis Belle Rises … Again

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The first post restoration of the B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle yesterday is a great story. An historic airplane, Memphis Belle was famous during and after WWII. It was the first B-17 to complete 25 bombing missions in Europe and return with its crew intact, an achievement that was about both luck and skill. The captain of the bomber, Robert Morgan, named the plane after his wartime sweetheart. Margaret Polk inspired by a famous riverboat called Memphis Belle. The pinup art on the side of the plane came from an Esquire magazine pinup illustration unrelated to either the girlfriend or the riverboat.

Memphis Belle with Original Crew
The original crew with Memphis Belle.

With the completion of the 25th successful raid, the Eighth Air Force had the B-17 flown back to the States, where the bomber, captained again by Morgan, went on a U.S. tour selling war bonds.

It’s where the plane after the war ended that’s cause for concern, not now, really, as it couldn’t have landed in a better home than the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

But up until 2005, when the museum acquired the plane its future was far from bright. It got saved from a government scrapyard in 1946 by the City of Memphis, which bought the namesake plane for $350 and put it on public display outside the armory and then, later, a different public display, all for more than 60 years in all. During that time it was stripped to the bone by vandals, thieves and souvenir hunters.

In 2004, the Air Force Museum, which since the 1970s was the owner of the plane but had it on loan to the City of Memphis, stepped in and brought it to Dayton for restoration.

That effort, as you’ll read elsewhere here, was incredibly expensive and took a long, long time, more to accomplish, more than a decade, in fact. Was it worth it? Hell yes! But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that there are many outfits that could have pulled off this restoration. There are just a handful that could have done it.

A few years ago when the Commemorative Air Force’s B-29 Fifi needed a new engine, the entire existence of the program was put into jeopardy, because to say that Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone engines are expensive is a huge understatement. The repair to the CAF’s Superfortress powerplant cost in excess of $100,000, and that was with no cylinders damaged.

Then there’s the question of who does the work. The CAF, which has active chapters in 26 states and a number of foreign countries, too, is greying, apparently at an even faster rate than aviation in general.

So that leads to the question, who is going to support the thousands of antique warbirds that live in museums and live-flying venues around the country and around the world? And support means resources, which means money, workers, facilities and materials. And for aircraft that actively fly, like the vast majority of CAF planes, those costs are not easy to meet and they are constantly on the rise as parts get harder to locate and aviation fuel gets more expensive.

Recruiting younger people to work on these planes—and to fly them, too—is the first step. Encouraging people to donate to the cause is critical, as well.

Efforts like the Museum of the Air Force to get Memphis Belle flying again helps a lot to put the focus on these flying masterpieces and priceless historical artifacts. Our job is to pitch in to help in any way we can, whether that means getting involved in the restoration and maintenance of these timeless birds or chipping in financially in any way you can.

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Going Direct: The Disappearance of Malaysia 370

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A panel of experts assembled by the television magazine show 60 Minutes Australia has come down with its verdict on what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on March 8, 2014. The mystery riveted a world audience wanting to know what had happened to the plane and its 239 occupants and generated a number of possible scenarios, including a few wild conspiracy theories that don’t merit further detail here.

The two major theories were these: The Boeing 777 suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure that depressurized the plane and killed everyone aboard while sparing the plane’s autoflight capability, which flew the plane until it ran out of fuel thousands of miles later, whereupon it crashed into the Indian Ocean.

Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777
Experts believe the crash of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, similar to the one pictured above, was intentional. Photo by Laurent ERRERA from L’Union, France [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

The second theory—and this is the one I’ve subscribed to and helped formulate—was that the disappearance and crash was a deliberate act, a suicide and mass murder. Under this scenario, one of the pilots would have depressurized the plane, disabling or killing everyone aboard and then flying the plane until it ran out of fuel and was crash-landed in the Indian Ocean.

The latter theory is the one that the 60 Minutes Australia panel settled upon. That’s not a big surprise, as it was always the theory that made the most sense with the least number of magic bullet explanations required.

In the weeks and months after the disappearance, I made dozens of appearances on television news shows, most regularly on CNN, where I explained the greater likelihood of the intentional act theory. Some of the basic tenets of my argument drive thinking today, including that when the plane began diverting from its flight path without any communications with ATC while not flying randomly away from the filed flight plan but by overflying other waypoints, something it’s hard to explain if mechanical failure were the culprit.

The 60 Minutes panel, which included experienced 777 pilots and accident investigators, discussed a few new or at least little-discussed pieces of evidence, including that the plane banked twice as it was overflying the captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, of the plane’s home town. Experts also discussed the fact that the plane avoided airspace for neighboring countries, indicating that it was being deliberately flown to avoid radar detection. But perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence was a part of a wing leading edge that would have been crushed in a nose down impact but was instead nearly pristine, which strongly suggests that when the plane did crash into the ocean, it was under human control.

While there have been parts of Malaysia 370 recovered over the last two years, the crash site has never been located, though efforts continue.

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Going Direct: Urban Air Taxis: Let’s Talk Fake News

Uber Elevate Multicopter
A screen capture from an Uber video showing its vision of a future multicopter friendly urban landing zone.

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There’s been a spate of stories lately about the rise of companies investing in the development of new forms of air transportation aimed at giving people a quick and easy way to get from A to B in an urban environment. The aircraft are mostly some form of multi-copter, you know, like the little drones you can pick up at Best Buy for anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to a couple thousand. I’m guessing the thinking goes like this, and it’s a guess because they’re not thoughts I’ve ever had myself.

“Okay, so these little drones are really cool. They’re not that hard to control—you can even use your phone to do it. Yeah, but what if they were bigger, big enough to carry people around. Wouldn’t that be cool? Okay, it’s settled, let’s do it. Calling the venture capital firms now.”

This is all well and good, but when it comes to aviation there are a few steps to take into consideration before launching in the wild blue here. First, before I’d spend any money, I’d ask myself if it’s ever been done before. The answer to this is “yes” and “no.” Yes, there’s urban air transportation now. Helicopters do it. In case you’re not familiar with them, they are a prehistoric form of quad copter. And they carry millions of people all over urban areas taking them anywhere they want to go at cheap prices. Well, that last part was all a lie. Think, opposite of that. Helicopters are enormously expensive to operate, they can go into very, very few places in urban settings, usually a handful of dedicated helicopter ports. In New York City, one of the biggest cities in the world, there are just a few grouped together along the East River or Hudson River shorelines. Why is that? Because helicopters can’t really fly in urban environments. They can fly around the edges of cities. So if you take a helicopter to, say, the East 30th Street Heliport, you then need to get ground transpiration to where you’re going from there. The helicopter isn’t ground transportation. It’s air transportation. Limos and Town Cars are ground transport.

The idea of small heli-style pod craft operating in the city is an interesting one. Where do they land? How do you keep innocent bystanders from getting chopped to pieces (which wreaks havoc with insurance rates)? And how do you avoid the dozens or hundreds of other multicopters buzzing about the canyons of Manhattan?

A tweet by Sporty’s VP and frequent P&P contributor John Zimmerman raised the question of how urban air taxis would deal with bad weather, the kind he highlighted in the tweet with the METAR at an airport showing 500 overcast with seven miles of visibility with winds gusting from 31 to 41 knots? And he asked, “How do you out-innovate Mother Nature?”

And how do you out-innovate decades of experience we have with a couple of generations of really smart people who would have loved to have created just such a system of close-in public air transport but who couldn’t not because their tech wasn’t good enough but because the environment was antagonistic to such operations?

You don’t. But by now I should probably stop complaining and see if I can’t get some of those sweet VC bucks before they dry up. Looking at it that way, I’m sure it’s doable. Don’t ask me how, but I’m sure it is.

The post Going Direct: Urban Air Taxis: Let’s Talk Fake News appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Going Direct: Aviation’s “Female” Pilot Problem

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Since the accident last week on Southwest Flight 1380, there has been a lot of discussion of the role of the captain, Tammie Jo Shults, who immediately became a public figure after air traffic control recordings of her cool and measured response to the emergency got the attention of observers inside and outside of aviation.

But Shults’ place in the story is not without controversy, not because of the pilot’s actions in the cockpit that day but because of her gender.

Woman by Plane

To recap and update the events, it was an absolutely uneventful flight for Southwest 1380 when without warning the number one engine on the Boeing 737-700 suffered a catastrophic, uncontained engine failure and the debris the engine cast off broke through the housing and shattered a single window on the side of the fuselage, sucking out of the resultant opening a seat-belted passenger, Jennifer Riordan, a bank executive from Albuquerque, NM. Riordan was pulled back into the plane by fellow passengers but still died of her injuries. The NTSB and FAA are investigating the mishap, and the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive yesterday, April 23, calling for the inspection of affected CFM56-7B engines with more than 30,000 cycles, of which there are fewer than a thousand worldwide. Shults and first officer Darren Ellisor did a remarkable job, making all the right calls and maneuvering their 737 for a single-engine landing in Philadelphia. (To read about five things Shults did right, check out our previous story on the emergency response.)

The controversy surrounding Shults wasn’t about the pilot at all but about the way she was being reported on, as a “female pilot.” In an opinion piece in the Washington Post last week, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Beverly Weintraub asked the question, Why, if “Sully” was just a hero, do we label Tammie Jo Shults a “female pilot?”

There are two possible answers, one honest and one troubling. The honest one first: There aren’t enough women flying as commercial pilots in the United States. Among ATPs working for the airlines, just 4.4 percent are women. And this figure hasn’t changed appreciably for years, which is true for private flying, as well.

Why is this so? Good question. The answer is surely a complicated one, involving cultural expectations, an often-hostile work environment, and other, less easily quantifiable factors. And lest you doubt the hostile work environment factor, I had a senior captain at a major airline tell me that co-pilots overall were next to worthless and that he laughs when a women “co-pilot” shows up in the right seat. These kinds of dinosaurs are surely less prevalent than when this discussion took place 18 years ago, but they still exist, though I’m sure for the most part they’re less bold about sounding off with their repugnant brand of sexism today.

But that does get us to the second possible reason that it was pointed out that Shults was a “female pilot,” not because there are relatively few female pilots but because Shults’ cool performance flies in the face of some people’s low expectations for women who fly. Which is to say, there’s the expectation among some that such performance from a woman is astonishing because, well, you know, women aren’t naturally very good at flying planes and driving cars and such things.

So when observers applaud great work and point out that the feat was accomplished by a woman, they’re unintentionally implying that it’s surprising that a woman can do great things, or even everyday things in a professional manner. The commenters, almost always men, who make such tone-deaf congratulations aren’t intentionally insulting all women but that’s the effect. Such comments have the effect of patronizing, of saying, “atta girl!” The implied message is that they, the men in the room, are in charge of conferring approval upon a lesser form of pilot. It’s the same language as the now-horrifying but once common phrasing of someone being a “credit to their race,” as though the members of any group of people need anyone to provide proof of their value.

In a Facebook post I satirized this patronizing attitude when I congratulated “male co-pilot Darren Ellisor” on his “helping out” and told the “boys” to keep up the good work. See? When you flip the genders on something like this, the tone and the hidden assumptions become immediately clear. The truth is, that Ellisor did do a great job regardless of gender, the same as Captain Shults.

Yesterday a Facebook aviation friend, Shaylyn Marchetti, a CFI, recounted an incident in which she was preparing for a lesson for a student when that student showed up with a friend, and asked if they could go along on the lesson. Marchetti ran a weight & balance, and said, “Sure.”

Before the flight could proceed, a bad mag forced them to return to the ramp. After shutting down and deplaning the CFI was accompanying the group back to the briefing room and one of the passengers, a 20-something year old man, asked her how long she’d been instructing—about two and a half years, she replied. And then the passenger asked if she expected to be doing it for a long time. To this Marchetti replied, “No, actually, I’m heading to the airlines next month.” The passenger then asked, “Oh, so you’re going to be a flight attendant?”

It wasn’t a joke, though it wouldn’t have been funny had it been an attempt at humor.

And it’s not really funny that in 2018 women account for just 4.4 percent of the airline pilots in the most prosperous and technologically advanced nation in the world.

Yet, there’s no getting around the fact that this statistic is inextricably linked to that passenger’s boneheaded question about the destination career of a young pilot who just happened to be a woman.

And there’s no getting around the fact that commenters who feel compelled to label Tammie Jo Shults a “female” pilot never flew with her in her former gig: Flying F/A-18s for the United States Navy as a carrier pilot. No, the correct label for Tammie Jo Shults isn’t “female;” it’s “consummate professional”

Shults’ response to this whole thing has been consistent with her management of the post accident messaging. In a prepared statement she and Ellisor said “Our hearts are heavy. On behalf of the entire Crew, we appreciate the outpouring of support from the public and our co-workers as we all reflect on one family’s profound loss.” And Shults and Ellisor have declined public appearances, deciding instead, according to multiple reports, to focus on assisting with the investigation.

The post Going Direct: Aviation’s “Female” Pilot Problem appeared first on Plane & Pilot Magazine.

Going Direct: Time Flies

As a pilot, I’ve always been a pretty pragmatic type, and I’ve always tried to find the most efficient way to get something done without sacrificing safety and without spending too much. “Pragmatic” and “cheap” aren’t synonyms, but let’s face it: they’re closely related.

Aside from money, the most important thing to a pilot is time, right? Well, if I can take the liberty of disagreeing with the idea I just floated, this is both true and not so true. I mean, if we didn’t care about how long something took to do, like to go from Connecticut to South Carolina, we’d probably drive. We fly because it saves a ton of time. At least that’s part of the attraction. The fact that flying is a blast, well, that’s another big piece of the puzzle. And since times flies when we’re having fun—a saying I never realized is so perfect for what we do—then the time we spend flying seems like a lot less time than it really is.

Time Flies: airplane at sunset

But it’s not that easy. We pilots invest a lot of time in what we do, and not just the flying, but the hangar flying, the airplane porn, the diving into the Wikipedia rabbit holes, the flight planning for trips we’re only dreaming of taking. And then there are the people who build their own airplanes, mostly from kits these days, but if you’ve ever built a kit plane, well, you know it’s not mean feat. And the hours spent add up to the point that they quickly become weeks and then years. The quoted number of hours kit makers claim that it will take to build their plane tend to be optimistic, to say the least. To be fair, many kitplane makers acknowledge this by adding caveats about how aptitude and experience matter in the build-time estimate. Regardless, when a builder gets halfway into a project (how to determine percentage completed of any given project being a humorous topic in itself), they’re in it for the duration.

The same isn’t always true for flying, however. AOPA’s Rusty Pilot program is one of the most successful initiatives the organization has ever run, and that’s not because rusty pilots are a rarity. Other things just get in the way. Mostly, it’s life, jobs, kids, financial challenges and relationship complications. After letting flying slip for awhile, it’s all too easy to let it fade completely away.

Well, almost completely. One truth the program has uncovered is that it takes very little, often only a single flight, to reignite that passion. And if there’s more time, more freedom and more support for the flying, then flying will happen.

Which is good, because we have a limited time on this earth. It makes sense to me, and to lots of you, too, to spend of it gazing down on the world from above and watching the earth turn and the days turn into sunsets and logbook remembrances. And all of that adds up without exception to time well spent.

Thanks, Kate

A quick note on a change at Plane & Pilot. Today is the last day here for associate editor, Kate O’Connor. A talented pilot and writer, Kate has, in the short time she’s been at Plane & Pilot, played a vital role in helping make our brand the success it has become, helping us grow in every direction. So I’d like to take this moment from all of us here to wish Kate all the best in her new opportunity, which we’re happy to say, will continue to be in aviation journalism.

If you want more commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.

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