Flying Above All………….

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The Fetus is Viable

One of the jokes I had with my youngest son while he was growing up was the old saw….”what is the Jewish definition of fetal viability?”  The answer is “when it graduates from medical school”.

I never pushed or encouraged him to pursue medicine.  Medicine has been good to me (at least it was for 25 years), and I enjoyed learning the human body, and understanding how our wonderful organism works.  Youngest son and I were pretty much by ourselves from the time he was in 6th grade.  He tolerated my world view, turned wrenches on planes with me, and at times simply got out of bed, rode to the hospital, and slept on a couch or hospital bed.  High school provided an opportunity for him to negotiate a better ride (translation: diesel pickup truck) as long as his grades stayed at a 3.5 GPA.  There were numerous times that wailing of “I just can’t do this!” was met with a shrug of the shoulders, and a “hand me the keys” statement.  It has always amazed me how much a boy can do, if he really wants to drive a truck.

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Back in The Saddle Again

As I mentioned, it’s been an unusual fire season.  A burst of activity early, then the monsoons arrived in Arizona.  Flying in from the East, the mountains appeared green, instead of the usual earth tones.  I’ve seen green grass all the way from Arizona to Oregon.  There is the usual discussion of the future weather….those of us who fight fire both hate it and love it.  We don’t like to see the destruction, but if there were no fires, we’d have no job.  The discussion on the porch of the tanker base has about as much reliability as the National Weather Service. Continue reading

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The Long Climb In

The vagaries of weather have created an unusual fire season.  We had a fairly quick start, then things changed.  Avoiding bed sores had become a large part of our daily routine.  Dramatic cutbacks in food intake were needed to avoid becoming so suddenly overfed that climbing into the plane represented a major challenge.

Speaking of climbing into the plane…I had never thought much of how we mounted/dismounted from the plane.  There are two steps that extend below the wing.  First the left foot, then the right, grab the handle, put left foot on wing.  Grab next handle, put both feet on wing. Continue reading

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Momma Made Peace With It….

My parents did not lavish gifts upon us.  We were expected to provide for ourselves any “extras”, or luxuries.  (Well, with the possible exception of my baby sister….)   My mother has said on several occasions, “I just don’t understand why all you kids work so hard”.

I told her, “Momma, you convinced us that the wolf was at the door, and if we wanted a fur coat, we better skin him!”  I learned at an early age that if you wanted something, you best be figuring out how to earn the money.  In the first grade, I “earned” my bicycle $0.05 and $0.15 at a time, doing chores, washing dishes, etc.  I guarantee it taught me the value of money to get $29.00 saved up like that.  And yes,  the money was in the “account” (in the Bank of Mom and Dad) prior to the purchase of a bicycle.  There wasn’t a policy of “buy it now”, with the parents conveniently forgetting to make you pay it back.  Yards were mowed for the neighborhood at age 8, and by age 12 I was running a tractor and a combine.  Continue reading

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1973 was a significant year.  I soloed a plane (March), got my pilot’s license (May), graduated high school (May), bought my first plane (June), and turned 18 (end of June).  My first airplane ride was at age 12, in an old V-tail Bonanza, and the next time I was in a plane I was taking flying lessons.  During my high school years I had a variety of jobs, including school bus driver, TV/washer/dryer repairman, worker at a cotton gin, and just about anything that would pay a bit.  Far and away the thing that captivated me most was working on airplanes, and working as a flagman.

Agricultural aviation/aerial application/cropdusting (same job, different decades) isn’t quite like driving a tractor.  When you have an elderly John Deere attached to a disc, you can clearly see the difference between the light brown dry crust on the ground, with a salting of green weeds and grass on the surface.  Once the disc passes, the dark brown moist soil makes it easy to see the line between the work done, and the work you have yet to do.  In the plane, there is no clear delineation between “done” and “yet to do”.  With the expense of the chemical, and the potential toxicity to crops, it’s very important to not “overspray”, covering the same area twice, and important to not have gaps, which leave streaks in the field.

My starting years in aviation were marked by working as a loader and “flag man”.  Flags, made literally from white cloth (most likely old sheets) were attached to broomsticks, and carried by “hired hands”, or willing young aviation enthusiasts.  At the edge of the field a set number of rows was counted out, and flagman number one stood there waving his flag.  The ag pilot would line up on him, and as soon as he passed, the set number of rows would be counted out, and the process would repeat.  Two flaggers were used, one on each end of the field.  The ag pilot was able to see the flaggers as he turned, and time his turn so that minimum time was wasted during each turn, and he would roll out of his turn lined up to start the spray at field’s edge.  (I wonder how much chemical I got in my system back then….)

As time went by, the difficulty and expense of keeping “flag men” up and operational rose.  The ag aviation industry went to the “automatic flagman”, which was a dispenser mounted on the wing that would release a 3 foot or so length of what appeared to be toilet paper.  A button on the control stick would activate a solenoid which would release the “flag”, and allow the pilot to not need ground crew.  At least that was the theory.

College, medical school, and residency interfered with my aviation career, and I left agricultural aviation for a number of years.  In the past few years, ag aviation and I have become reacquainted.  During the interval, GPS has come on the scene, and just as GPS has revolutionized navigation, instrument approaches, and maps, it changed how ag aviators worked.

Satloc is a trade name, that often is used generically to describe a system that consists of a GPS receiver, a “lightbar”, and a keypad in the cockpit.  The lightbar gives left/right guidance, and is adjustable via the keypad to allow greater or lesser sensitivity.  It is a remarkable piece of equipment, that can mark, and record your flight path down to 1 foot intervals.  The memory can be downloaded, and preserved on computer, printed on paper, and used as a record of work done.


This is a picture of a Satloc light bar.  The lights across the top (left/right) are the indicator of how far left or right of your desired path you are.  The bottom row of lights indicates the angle at which you are to the path. (in other words, you can be left of course, on a continued left deviation, or left of course, with an angle to the right of course….which means you will correct eventually).  The numbers on the left and right are typically set up to indicate swath number, and feet to the left or right of course.

satloc keypad

The keypad is located in the cockpit.  As is true with most computer systems, the keystroke sequence is key (pun intended).  Before a job is started, “clear pattern enter” removes the last setup, and will allow you to set your “line”.  As you enter the field, you “mark” your “A” position with a button on the control stick, fly the length of the field and then mark your “B” position.  That sets a “boundary” line on one edge of the field.  You then can work off that line “back to back” (the most common, the way we did it back in the 70s, where you sequentially turn, line back up, and incrementally work your way across the field).  “Racetrack” is also used, as is “squeeze”, “quick racetrack” and other variations that allow different field types to be worked.

satloc cockpit2

The cockpit display can show where you have sprayed (note the green above), and will also show areas that you missed, areas of overspray, and can be preserved.

It’s very simple.  Load, fly to the field, don’t hit any antennas/wires/trees, nor fly over Granny Jones who just hates cropdusters, program your field, plan your pattern, drop into the field hit the button for the A point, spray on at the field edge, hit the button at the B point, spray off, hit the button to advance the swath number, start your turn, watch the light bar to make sure you roll out close to the line, make corrections to keep the light bar centered, spray on at the field edge, spray off at the opposite end, don’t hit the tree, don’t hit the irrigation stand pipe, don’t hit the wire.

Advance the swatch, turn the opposite direction, spray on at the fields’ edge, look to make sure that the nozzles are all spraying evenly (don’t want streaking), spray off, turn advance swath.  Keep an eye on your fuel, watch the Turbine Inlet temperature, as you don’t want that expensive turbine to be too hot, watch for the amount of chemical and the acreage that you’re spraying, since you don’t want to be putting out too much or too little.  It’s really very simple.

Flying the light bar is often compared to flying a localizer.  For those of you who aren’t pilots, the localizer is an instrument that provides left/right guidance with a needle that allows an instrument approach.  It provides a progressively more sensitive indication as you approach the runway, so that by a quarter mile out or so, at an altitude of 400-500 feet it becomes so sensitive that it’s very difficult to follow.

The Satloc lights can be changed in sensitivity, but they are usually in 1-2 foot increments.  They do not vary with altitude (I’ve used Satloc to navigate across country….the manual says not authorized for that, but if I can put a latitude/longitude in it, and follow it….) Of course, when flying ag you’re at a 8-10 foot altitude.

Sometime between the era of flagmen, when I left agricultural aviation, and the era of GPS and Satloc, when I returned, the whole world changed.  It took me a while, and the patience of some good men, to get me up to speed on following the light bar.  Downloading my GPS tracks, and laughing, they would point out what appeared to be a very slow kindergartener learning to finger paint.  Over some time it improved.  I’ve now actually received a paycheck for “painting a field” using Satloc.

It’s really very simple.


The Great Escape

Frequently I’m queried about “why do you go fly fires?”

Occasionally, I ask myself that same question.  However, this morning while out walking around the tanker base, I found some insights coming to me.  Not sure it will make sense to anyone but me, but, on the other hand, I don’t think it necessarily has to make sense to anyone else.

Let me recap the past couple of months….over the winter I worked at a Georgia hospital, taking call (in-house call…which means you “sleep” in the hospital.  The reality is you simply have insomnia in the hospital).  Lots of good people there, the occasional person who might make your life difficult, but really a reasonable place to work for the most part.  October of 2014 was the occasion of a discussion with our chief of operations (for the fire fighting outfit), when I had to commit to  either “go” or “not go” out summer of 2015.  I took a long time to think it through (perhaps 2 or 3 nanoseconds) before replying “yes”.

That required notifying my GA hospital that I would be leaving.  In order to make sure I was done with hospital work in time to leave for fires, I had given my notice that I would be done on a Friday in May.  I was anticipating a nice long week or two with nothing to do, perhaps do a bit of ag flying for my friend Joey, and be ready to leisurely leave out on fires….maybe even take a few days to go visit family, have a vacation….you know, “normal” stuff.  Fate intervened.  I got a phone call from RC (guy who owns the group I where I formerly worked full time) needing some help at one of his hospitals.

So, in the finest tradition of tight scheduling, I finished in GA at 10 AM on a Friday morning, drove to the airport, got in the trusty Baron and headed west….just to Mississippi.  Went on call at noon, did solid call for a week, then flew back to GA to work in the office there for 3 days.  Back to Mississippi, another week, back to GA for 3 days, back to MS for a week….then back to GA for 3 more days….then a (big) day of my birthday, then to Louisiana to pick up the company Baron, then to Arizona….

I’m tired just thinking of it.  From late May to the end of June, I took call for 20 days, worked 9 days in the GA office, then had a great 3 days with family, then flew to AZ and was on duty for fires.

Okay, maybe that’s not a “brief recap”.  During the last week of work, besides the typical volume of cases, two cases stood out.  One was a lady who had multiple co-morbidities (that’s the fancy way we say “she was low sick”).  Had serious intra-abdominal pathology (meaning really bad stuff) happening in her belly.  She chose to undergo surgery, knowing it was her only option…but wasn’t likely to survive with or without an operation.  Due to her medical condition (yeah, I know, I could tell more, but this blog is publicly accessible, and I gotta be careful) she was unable to extend her arms, which made getting IV access very difficult.  During the operation, she began a rapid decline.  Several CRNAs, nurses, and myself worked hard, but she ultimately went into cardiac arrest.  Resuscitation went on for quite some time, and eventually I had to declare the obvious.  Time of death was established.  She was in her early 50s.

A mere few days later, another patient was brought to the OR in extremis…she had delivered, and as happens (thankfully rarely) she began to profusely bleed.  Her OB brought her to do an emergency hysterectomy…and for quite some time we weren’t able to get a blood pressure reading.  Again, the team did an outstanding job.  Without boring you with details, the tide was stemmed, her peripheral perfusion returned, and she transferred to the ICU…alive.

Early the next morning I trekked to the ICU with trepidation, wondering if she would have had any neurological damage….low blood pressure, heavy bleeding, and multiple syringes of epinephrine are usually a poor prognostic sign.  I was gratified that she responded, and although remained intubated she was able to write notes.  Last night I heard from my CRNA buddy that she had gone home….walking and talking.  Two small children will have their mother, a man has his wife, and a mother her daughter.

But, as gratifying as that is, the mileage on my personal odometer has left the brain a bit worse for wear, the emotions a bit more dampened, and the enthusiasm for more of the same diminished.  The reward of the “save” fades next to the pain of the “loss”.  Yes, I know, I’ve said it for years….”the patient is the one with the disease”, “I didn’t give him his problem”, “I didn’t cause his bowel to rupture”.  Somehow, each time it pulls something out of me, though.

The cockpit provides an escape.  When the turbine spools up, the door closes, the loader finishes, hoses disconnect, and the 802 waddles out of the pits, I’m in my own world.    The harness ties me to the machine, my radio my connection to the outside world.  As I go cross-country to the fire, the gauges reassure me that all is well.  The drop may or may not be great, I may or may not get praise, maybe someone notices, maybe someone doesn’t.  I always hate the end of the flight.  I may be ready to leave the cockpit, I may be tired…but I hate the end of it.  It remains my escape.

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Summer Camp (for Pilots)

As I was readying to leave Georgia, headed to make the trek West, the cute girl (now fiancee) driving me to the airport  looked at me, somewhat askance….

“You’re headed to summer camp”….

Huh?  Never really thought about going out to fly fires as “summer camp”….but it got me to thinking.  Summer camp, as a kid, always involved “church camp”.  No sir, none of those fancy/schmancy camps where you go and have catered meals.  We stayed in rudimentary cabins.  No air conditioning, and in West Texas the lack of air conditioning approached child abuse.

The food was relatively healthy…fresh goat meat, occasionally a hamburger, beans.  Always there were beans….and if you were a junior high age boy, that provided it’s own source of amusement.  Activities varied from sitting and having worship services, to cleaning, to organized games…and the ever present campfire at night.  Not that we were going to suffer too much from lack of heat, but it did seem to provide an internal warmth that I remember to this day.  I still love a campfire, even if it’s way too warm to *really* need one.

We had the morning class/lecture/inspirational talk.  Most of them were clearly unremarkable, other than the fact that they seemed to be delivered by people who truly believed what they spoke.  Lunch was a time to look forward to, if for nothing other than being able to get out of the heat, into the air conditioning, and get something down to quiet the growling from your stomach after breakfast had long worn off.

The fire season day usually begins about 5:30 am or so for me.   My body is still on Eastern time, and even when in the Eastern time zone, I was an early riser.  “Show time”, or the time that we have to be ready to be utilized, is either 0800 or 0900…0800 today.  Because I am the relief pilot, I get out to the air field a bit early, to go over the plane that has been flown by another pilot for the past couple of weeks.  My mechanic/driver/loader (another Stan) helps me get things ready.  Naturally, the rudder pedals have to be adjusted….which, in an 802, is really easy….if you are 5’0″ tall and weigh about 125 pounds.  For those of us who are taller, heavier, and have an abdomen that has expanded over the years, it’s not quite that easy.

Bending over, trying to avoid impaling my head on the control stick, opening a nice laceration on my right arm, and using a few choice words somehow helped get the pin into the correct place.  Better to suffer for a bit early, than suffer sore ankles and legs from pedals that are way too close. (Ever notice how mechanical objects seem to require the shedding of blood?)

Then the morning brief.  The weather report is read in a monotonous tone (but how in the world can Battle Mountain, Nevada, be too excited about a front moving moisture in over Ohio?), and the fire “sit report” (situation report) including Alaska, is read as well.  A discussion of the LAL (lightning activity level), the Haines index (google it), and the mixing level of winds occurs.

Time for PT.  The young, healthy, fit ones go for a run.  Us slightly older…(well, maybe a lot older) ones walk around the base.  Some of the guys go off for a cigarette and a cup of coffee.  I take a path leading out to an old abandoned C-123, with the JATO still mounted on top (Jet Assisted Take Off).  I ponder what it was like to take an elderly, much used work horse, add a jet engine to it, load it with retardant and light the fire in the jet, put full power to the old radials and hang on.  More likely, add all the power and hope that nothing broke, and that you could get the thing airborne.

Now, waiting on lunch.

You know, there are certain parallels.  Maybe this really is summer camp.