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My buddy Gabor dropped by my cube late one morning.

"Hey, Gabor, what's up?"

"Operation Tiramisu. Have you had lunch?" he asked.

Actually, I'd just inhaled a sandwich at my desk, but I was intrigued.

"I just ate. Does Operation Tiramisu involve flying?" I asked.

"Of course," he answered.

I glanced at the emails on my screen that needed responses. They could wait.

"OK, you've talked me into it," I told him and we headed off to nearby San Carlos airport where he keeps his helicopter.

For all the flying I'd done in airplanes, I'd never been in a helicopter before. This was going to be fun! As he began the pre-flight, Gabor handed me a handsome, laminated passenger briefing card he'd prepared covering the FAA-mandated items and other useful information about his Enstrom 280FX helicopter. When he was finished, he went over it with me.

"This is a good idea," I told him. "I'll have to consider making something like this for my club's airplanes."

The short hop over to the coast was much as it would be in an airplane, but lower, slower, and with a spectacular view downward through the large bubble window.

"Wow, can't beat the view," I commented. Gabor smiled.

When we arrived at Half Moon Bay, he flew a regular traffic pattern like an airplane, but the similarity ended on short final for runway 30, when he broke off into a hover taxi toward an open field at the South end of the airport. He slowly backed the helicopter into his chosen parking spot and gently set her down.

"Sweet!" I commented as we waited for the engine to cool enough to shut down and for the rotor to come to a stop before getting out. We walked a few hundred feet to Mezza Luna restaurant. After a quick look at the menu, Gabor ordered his lunch entree to go.

"And two orders of tiramisu, please," I added.

"Coming right up," the waiter said. Gabor and I sat in the waiting area swapping flying stories until our order was ready.

On our return flight Gabor asked, "You want to try your hand at the controls?"

"Of course!" I answered. He let me take the cyclic and anti-torque pedals—but wisely kept the collective and throttle to himself.

"Turns are all cyclic," he explained. "Unlike an airplane, you only need the pedals when speeding up or slowing down."

I tried a couple of turns left and right. He explained that level turns require moving the cyclic in a kind of skewed oval pattern to compensate for the rotor's gyroscopic effect. He had me try accelerating and decelerating, using the pedals to keep the nose pointed straight.

"Not bad," Gabor said. I got to play through most of our descent into San Carlos until we were ready to enter the pattern.

As we turned final, Gabor asked, "Want to see an autorotation?"

"Uh, no, that's OK," I answered nervously.

"Well, not all the way down!" he said.

"Um, OK, sure—go ahead," I said, curiosity getting the better of apprehension.

Gabor cut power, pitched up, lowered the collective, and we started down. I noticed that the rotor RPM was smack in the middle of the green arc.

"You're using a combination of cyclic and collective to keep the rotor RPM in the green?" I asked.

"Exactly," he replied. On short final, Gabor restored power and began a fast hover taxi down the runway. Just for fun, he did a beautiful quick stop to a stationary hover abeam his parking space.

"Cool!" I exclaimed. "You can't do that in an airplane."

Gabor smiled. "Nope," he said and taxied over to his tie-down spot and set down perfectly, despite the significant crosswind.

"So, did you enjoy Operation Tiramisu?" he asked.

"It was awesome—thanks! I'd read about this stuff when studying for my AGI test, but actually experiencing it makes it real."

It wasn't until late afternoon, after a flurry of meetings and emails, that I finally got a moment to sample our mission's objective: Mezza Luna's vaunted tiramisu.

As promised, it was excellent.

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"We're screwed," I moaned as Anders and I desperately searched the ground below for the landmarks that would lead us to the timing line. "Where are the houses on the lake?"

We were already running late on our timing run into Redding, California on the first leg of this year's Hayward Air Rally and now we were lost. After making a full circle, we still didn't see anything that we recognized.

"Maybe it's farther up-river," Anders suggested.

"Must be," I replied, so we continued further Northeast, following the water.

"There are the houses!" I shouted, pointing ahead of us.

"And there's the timing line!" Anders replied, pointing about 45 degrees to the left. He turned toward it and pushed the nose over to pick up as much speed as possible. We screamed low over the timing line fully 6 minutes late according to the computer on my lap.

"Oh, that hurts," I lamented. And it did. At one penalty point per second off our estimate, we were officially toast.

In my March post Fuel Burn, Schmuel Burn about rally flying, I wrote (and I quote): "Time is easier than fuel, and Anders and I are getting pretty good at it." As I sat on the balcony of our hotel room in Bend, Oregon that evening recalling that statement and picking black feathers out of my teeth, it was clear that some reassessment was in order.

"All right, I'm Mr. Observe-Act-Observe," I thought to myself. "What can we observe here, and what can we do next time? What specifics do we have to work with?"

Well, the first obvious thing was that our timing strategy, which had worked well for small differences between forecast and actual winds, was totally inadequate in the face of a ten-knot discrepancy. We'd planned for 20-knot headwinds, but at our timing-run altitude, they were at least 30. When you're flying a 105-knot airplane, that's a huge difference. We also hadn't had enough practice regulating speed in a descent, which was required for both timing runs, so more experience with that was clearly in order.

Despite the poor results, several aspects of the flight had gone well, and those were worth noting too. Our navigation by pilotage and dead reckoning had been generally quite good. Except for our very ill-timed "location challenge" on the timing run, we had no trouble finding and identifying the mandatory checkpoints. Until we started our timing run (precisely at the time we planned to), we were even doing well on time. Our fueling predictions were not good, but they were better than we'd ever done before and the errors were consistent. We still weren't exactly in the ballpark, but we were at least in the neighborhood looking for parking. We also got some clues from more experienced participants that should help us with our fuel-burn accuracy.

The struggle behind us, we joined several other rally crews for dinner that evening to swap stories, tell jokes, make lame excuses, and generally enjoy an evening of good food and drink with friends. Despite the sting of our ignominious defeat (we ended up in the middle of the pack in the final standings), I was happy to have made the trip. The town of Bend is gorgeous. The folks at Professional Air and the Shilo Inn couldn't have been more accommodating. Our room with the balcony overlooking the tree-lined river populated by ducks, geese, swans, and frogs, was a wonderful place to relax and recover. The rally organizers and volunteers worked their tails off as usual to make the event smooth, efficient, and fun. And besides, as I'm so fond of saying, it was flying! We'll be back again next year.

In the meantime, what can Anders and I do? We can develop a timing strategy that can accommodate a much wider disparity between forecast and actual winds. This will be challenging in our slow airplane with minimal configuration options, but we have some ideas. There are also some experiments we can try to make our fuel burn more consistent and therefore more predictable.

Never let it be said I don't eat my own well earned crow! It's especially good followed by a little slice of humble pie a la mode.

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My instructor Paul leaned over and looked at the instrument panel, asking, "What heading are you flying?"

"040 degrees," I replied.

"Oh, OK," he said, sitting back and looking out the window.

I had been flying gliders for a couple of years and had the opportunity to buy a friend's share in a flying club, but there was a catch: it was an airplane club and I needed to have an airplane rating to join. So, I started training with Paul, who was also a member of the club. We were on our first dual cross-country flight to Castle Airport, a former Air Force base in California's Central Valley. I was practicing my dead reckoning and pilotage.

On a hazy day at 5,500 feet, however, one landmark in that vast valley starts to look much like any other, and soon I could no longer match anything I saw on the ground with my chart. Then I looked again at my heading indicator.

"Oh, no! I've been flying heading 020!"

"Yes, you have," answered Paul matter-of-factly. "So what heading do you think you need now to get back on course?"

Chagrined, I estimated how long I'd been flying the wrong heading, how much farther we had to go, and took a stab at a new heading.

"050 degrees?" I asked Paul.

"Let's try it," he said, and we proceeded on course.

I was reminded of a story I'd read in Beryl Markham's incredible book West With the Night, about her growing up in British East Africa and becoming one of the world's earliest female bush pilots. She later went on to be the first person to fly from England to North America non-stop. On one flight with her instructor and mentor Tom Campbell Black, they were approaching a ridge that was clearly higher than they were. Even with full power and as much back-stick as she dared, the airplane just wouldn't climb fast enough. As the ridge loomed larger and closer before them, she wondered why Black, sitting in the forward cockpit, made no move and gave no sign. Finally, as the mountainside filled her field of view, Black took the controls and turned the airplane away from the ridge into a circling climb.

"Now you know what a downdraft is," he told her. "I could have told you sooner, but you deserve to make your own mistakes."

Paul understood this principle well. He could have corrected me right way, but he understood the value of my mistake. It let me learn firsthand how easy it is to misread to the HI, and I got to experience catching my mistake and figuring out how to recover from it.

What is a mistake? I define it as an action that produces results different from my intentions. Actually, few of our actions produce exactly the results we intend, so the "mistake" characterization is a matter of degree. Ultimately, though, I think there's not much value in this characterization. More important is focusing on actions and results. This is related to what I call true confidence, which can be thought of as a well founded faith that our results will usually match our intentions, and when they don't, they'll be recoverable, as they were when I caught myself flying the wrong heading.

This focus on results is a particularly powerful antidote to the embarrassment we often feel when making a "mistake." It allows us to learn from our experience quickly, which in turn improves our ability to reliably produce the results we intend.

"That's gotta be Castle," I said to Paul when the vast strip of concrete appeared a bit off our nose.

He smiled. "Yeah, a B-52 runway is hard to miss."

In other words, he had set up a perfect learning scenario and I had made the most of it—by making the right mistake at just the right time.

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"We were only climbing at about 100 feet per minute. The stall horn was blaring. I was sweating bullets! We finally just barely cleared the trees…"

We pilots love to tell "war stories" about experiences that scared the bejeezus out of us, and we love to hear these stories told. Accident reports and "never again" stories are standard fare in aviation publications and perennial favorite "hangar flying" topics. I have no doubt that some of the appeal is a natural desire to spin a riveting yarn and "one-up" the other guy, but I think there's also a sincere motivation to learn from our experiences and those of others. Lord knows I've told stories like these myself (some of them in this blog) and overall, I think it's a healthy practice.

We should be careful, though, to be aware of who's listening.

"What have you gotten us into?!" said Kevin, a non-pilot, in a harsh whisper to his wife Pamela, a CFII and professional pilot and the newest member of our club. As I described in last week's post, we recently held an appreciation dinner for our friend Bob, who had sold his share in the club after more than 40 years of membership. After much food and wine were consumed, several present and former members took turns in telling one of the club's epic "there I was" stories about the time our A36 Bonanza blew a jug on departure from Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. The purpose of recounting the tale was to illustrate the club's values, including airmanship, teamwork, mechanical know-how, and ingenuity. The pilots in attendance nodded and shouted approval at appropriate points, as is only proper when such stories are told.

Kevin, however, was becoming increasingly appalled at such apparent nonchalance regarding a life-threatening event. While most of us were thinking, "Wow, that's some cool-headed piloting. Nice work!" Kevin's thoughts were running more along the lines of, "Are you people nuts?!"

What isn't obvious to non-pilots hearing these stories is the learning that's going on in the heads of pilots as we listen. In the backs of our minds, we're reviewing our own experiences, comparing them with the story, evaluating our own actions, and planning how we'll handle similar situations if they happen to us. We're reviewing our own personal limits and decision making criteria. We're assessing our current proficiency and judgment. It's a really valuable exercise.

Non-pilots, though, probably come away with a very different impression. We probably come across to them as reckless thrill seekers going out of our way to risk life and limb in the crazed pursuit of the perfect adrenaline rush. Why would they even consider entrusting their lives to such dangerous wackos by getting in an airplane with us? With many in the general public regarding pilots as selfish rich people who indulge in their expensive hobby without considering the noise they're causing or the fuel they're burning, I want to be very mindful of how I talk about flying, especially among non-pilots. I want to convey the impression that pilots are responsible, considerate, and professional—which in fact we generally are. This is especially important when speaking with people who are curious about flying or might want to become pilots themselves. I'd feel awful if I thought I'd scared someone away from the joys of flight with careless talk.

I think I can maintain this level of awareness and care without losing out on the benefits and fun of hangar flying. Besides, I can always save the really hair-raising stories for those $100 hamburger runs with my flying buddies.

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A large group had gathered for dinner at a favorite restaurant to honor our friend Bob, one of the earliest members of our flying club, who had recently sold his share after more than 40 years of membership. The room was packed. Large quantities of pizza, salad, and wine were consumed, and the hangar talk flowed. As physical appetites were sated, the time was ripe for some more formal storytelling—well, as formal as we get. Anders, our club president, assumed the role of master of ceremonies, laying out the rough plan for the after-dinner activities. He then yielded the floor to our Bonanza's crew chief Hal, who introduced one of the club's epic stories and the pilot, Paul, who in the early 1990's was at the center of it.

"There was a loud bang as the whole airplane shook," said Paul, beginning his tale. He and his wife were departing Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California in our club's A36 Bonanza. Loud bangs of any kind are rarely good news, especially in airplanes, so after a brief moment of denial, and on his wife's urging, Paul decided to return to the airport immediately. He described the experience in detail and his thought processes as he maneuvered the airplane for a landing on the remote runway perched high atop the island, far from civilization.

"I was worried about landing short, so I ended up touching down a bit too fast and farther down the runway than I wanted to, but I managed to get her stopped before we reached the end." After clearing the runway and shutting down the engine, he and his wife opened the cowling. To their horror, they found one of the cylinders all but loose from the crankcase and hanging by a bolt or two. Most of the studs holding the cylinder down had broken and were lying loose in the engine bay. Two of the through bolts that held the crankcase together had shorn completely. It was a miracle that the engine hadn't come apart, but had they continued flying, it certainly would have.

Paul's story held the diners' rapt attention. Most of the people in attendance were pilots themselves or spouses of pilots. Indeed most were present or former members of our flying club and had flown the very airplane that Paul was talking about. The story had become something of a legend in the club, but few of us had ever heard the pilot's account firsthand.

The story was then taken up by Eric, the club's mechanic at the time, who described the extreme measures that he and Hal had taken to retrieve the shredded engine and return it to San Jose, where he spent several weeks rebuilding it. After painstaking planning, he arranged to transport the overhauled engine, along with all the parts and tools he would need, back to Catalina where the airplane still sat. Eric needed to anticipate every contingency, because once he got to the island, he was on his own. He described how he single-handedly installed the engine in several hours' time and began ground testing. This amazed the crowd. Most of us have been involved in hanging engines on airplanes, so the thought of doing it in a single day was boggling, but Eric was a very experienced A&P and IA and knew what he was doing.

At this point, Dave, the club's President at the time, continued the story. He had arrived on Catalina in a friend's Bonanza about the time Eric was finishing up the engine installation.

"Ready to go?" Dave asked Eric.

"Yep," Eric replied.

"OK, let's go," Dave said matter-of-factly. Such was his confidence in Eric's work—especially considering Eric's willingness to get in the airplane himself. For several hours, they made multiple flights, all within gliding distance of the airport, testing the airplane's performance and checking carefully for problems between flights. Finally, they were satisfied that the airplane was ready to cross the channel to the mainland, so they set out for Long Beach, and then on to San Jose.

As Dave wrapped up the tale, he handed it back to Hal, who delivered the moral of the story. Hal pointed out how the episode illustrated the club's hallmark values, including airmanship, mechanical skill, resourcefulness, cooperation, hard work—and fun. In the process, he also explained the genesis of the plaque that had hung on the hangar wall since the events on Catalina. Arrayed on the plaque's surface, in all their gold-spray-painted glory, were the very studs, nuts, and through bolts that had shorn when the engine blew. The coveted Through Bolt Award had been conferred periodically on members deemed worthy of the honor for service to the club above and beyond the call of duty.

Finally, Anders revealed the point of the evening's shaggy dog story when he bequeathed the Through Bolt Award to Bob in perpetuity in recognition of his immeasurable contributions to the club over more than forty years. The crowd shouted their approval as Bob accepted the award with bemused grace.

The pilots in attendance clearly found the evening's proceedings most satisfying. I learned, however, that at least one non-pilot in the crowd was thinking thoughts more along these lines:

"Are you people nuts?!"

More about that next week…

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