Category Archives: Aviation

How to Handle the Weight of Command

Messy traffic in a central asian intersection

Sometimes the simplest jobs get messy.

Our driver weaves the van right to pass the truck but dips back.  The truck slides right, so our driver moves left. Still not clear, he trails again behind the swaying load. Another peek to the right reveals open space. He accelerates into the lane. But a motorcycle pulls up behind, then passes on our right running along the pavement’s edge. At the same time, a bus appears around the bend ahead, filling the opposing lane, bearing down upon us.

The honking motorcycle races forward clearing our finder by an inch, then threads the shrinking gap between bus and truck. Our driver drops back into the shelter behind the truck as the bus speeds through the vacated space. A few minutes later our driver successfully exploits a fresh opportunity but then brakes as a farm tractor meanders onto the highway. The truck instantly looms close behind, blasts an air horn but doesn’t drop back. read more ...

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Reentering the In-between Place

computer map of airliner flight path over canada

When I lifted the window-shade we were just leaving eastern Canada for the icy north Atlantic.

The cabin’s dark. All shades down. I’m up from my middle seat in a B-777 mid-section, pacing the aisle amidst a couple hundred sleepers. Like river rapids, air rushing over our fuselage blankets all other sounds and provides a steady background for the occasional snort, sneeze, or snuffle. I feel alone in the silent crowd. Unnoticed. Unseen.

I move to the open space dividing Economy from Business Class and stand before the sealed exit. Carefully I stoop down, shielding the tiny window with my body. I slide my thumb under the lip of the plastic shade and slowly push up. A half-inch. A full inch. A thin, brilliant wedge of sunshine explodes. Dare I open it more? I must. Cloud tops tantalize, draw me. I look at the slumbering forms to my left. All wear eye masks. No one moves. Emboldened I push again. A two-inch slot reveals the panorama of broken clouds offering small holes to sea and ice-covered mountaintops below. At thirty-five thousand feet, we’re leaving the eastern shores of northern Canada for the icy north Atlantic. read more ...

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How I Learned to Keep My Balance and Fit it All In

Smiling man loading cargo into a single engine airplane

Panchito loading a C-185, leaving just enough room for me to fly it safely.

Preparing for a month-long work trip out of the country inundated me with too many extras, too many surprises. No time left to work on my novel (The Perelandra Paradox), pitch the memoir (Sky Creature), reprint and re-market my previous book (Call For News), and, oh yeah, write this post. I was feeling overloaded and out of balance. Reminded me of flying.

Every manufacturer determines the maxim allowable takeoff weight for every aircraft they produce using four factors:

1. The engine’s power: The engine(s) must produce enough power to move the aircraft fast enough to make the wings work.
2. The wing’s lift: The wings, given airflow, must produce enough lift to raise the aircraft off the ground.
3. The airframe’s strength: The airframe must hold its own weight, plus the fuel, cargo, passengers and crew in their designated places during taxi, take off, climb, maneuvering, descent, and landing.
4. The performance margin: The gross weight of the aircraft must leave enough margin for the airplane to be controllable throughout all of its expected motions in both still and turbulent air. read more ...

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Help Finding Lost Earrings and Hidden Jungle Airstrips

sandstone rocks and knarlled tree

The rocks, crags, scree and bushes of Glen Eyrie delight the eye, but can hide much.

Darn!” my wife exclaimed. “I lost an earring.”

We’d just finished a two-hour hike among the rocks and crags of Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs, so I didn’t even offer to search. The chances of finding it were non-existent.

Sorry to hear that, honey,” I consoled.

Yeah, they were my favorites…” she sighed.

Favorites? I thought. That raised the stakes. Reminded me of other high stakes, impossible searches.

I flew over the Amazon Jungle. It stretched like a flat, featureless sea to every horizon. Hanging there below the wings, the lone engine droning, I easily imagined it extending forever to the ends of the Earth and maybe even time itself. Hours could pass, yet the view below would always look the same—gently rolling dimpled broccoli. read more ...

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With a Renewed Focus, I’m Back On The Air

Finding new focus is like this Cessna C-185 flying over gray clouds into the sunlight

Two and a half years ago I put this site up to promote my work as an “Aviation & Space Writer.” But, as you can see on this site, focus moves, changes, and grows. During the last few months, I’ve come to realize I’m more of a commentator than a reporter. The facts are important—especially crucial in aviation—but I’m more interested in what higher perspectives mean, what we see and learn from our real and virtual aerial views. So here’s a summary of my current projects: read more ...

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How I Passed a Long Overdue Instrument Proficiency Check

Two pilots in 1940s cockpit

1940s pilots navigated by listening to A-N Beacon signals

When I first got my instrument rating I reveled, awash in a sea of modern technology. Waving needles, flashing lights, and pulsing sounds enabled me to fly anywhere, anytime. Once I spoke the language and mastered the steps, it became a precision junkie’s dream. Maintaining proficiency was a joy.

In contrast, my father’s stories of 1940s flying in the clouds held almost horrid fascination. Clunky, hard to read instruments scattered haphazardly around the panel dared the pilot to keep wings level and nose on the horizon. To navigate he clamped hard plastic headphones to his ears. Then straining to discern man-made signals amidst nature’s static crashes, he steered the airplane along an A-N Beam until he found a course that merged scratchy dot-dash “As” with dash-dot “Ns” with into a constant tone. Once attained, he held that course—for hours. read more ...

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How Absolutes Beat Bad Air

Cessna 172 instrument panel enables holding absolute headings and altitudes

Heading north, morning sun streaming in from the right, smooth air at 8,500 feet—what’s not to like?

Last Friday I flew to Sandpoint, Idaho in the panhandle north of Coeur d’Alene. MAF asked me to retrieve two pilots who ferried a Kodiak 100 to the Quest factory for adding a new option. My craft, a more modest Cessna 172, performed well in the smooth, cool morning air. Fitted with a 180 horsepower engine mod, it lifted me and full fuel tanks quickly to 8,500 feet. I had an easy schedule, so I anticipated a great day wandering north.

Fifty minutes out of Nampa, I crossed the Hell’s Canyon west of Monument Peak and He-Devil Mountain. Billed as North America’s deepest, its gorge plummets 7,993 feet down to the Snake river. Most of the area remains inaccessible by road, but I got a prime seat. read more ...

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How Oshkosh Showed Me a Climb Attitude

Christen Eagle biplane taking off

After 17 years flying the Amazon jungle and Andes mountains, I came to my first AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Before first day opening, I flashed my Exhibitor badge at the dutiful guards and walked through the AirVenture gate. Thirty years of professional aviation experience provided no preparation for what I beheld. Without turning my head I saw three times more aircraft than occupied the entire civil registry of the country where I served.

As a pilot and air ops manager, who knew I needed an aviation fix? Like a starving man no longer feeling hunger pangs, I didn’t know what I needed until I immersed myself into the world of cold 2024 aluminum skin, taut cotton wings, red hydraulic fluid, flashing glass panels, spinning propellors, and clouds of 100 octane exhaust fumes—ambrosia and incense. read more ...

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How to Hold It All Together

James Rush Manley views airframe with most of the skin removed

A Cessna 206 fuselage barely stands with most of the skin and stiff forms removed.

My friend Ron decided to build his own airplane—a Vans RV-7A. A few days ago he invited me to help him put a wing together. Seeing it reminded me that we make airplanes out of really flimsy stuff.

The outer skin of your average airliner is only about ⅛” thick. Ron’s bird—lighter, slower, carries only two people—sports a hide just over 1/64” thick. How will that metallic tissue keep him safe three miles above the ground when he flies 200 miles per hour for 900 miles?

Turns out it depends on how we stick it together. We could, for example, scrunch up aluminum foil, adding wad to wad, until we fabricated a substantial, solid mass. It might be robust but would weigh too much to fly and leave no room for motors, fuel, cargo, passengers or even, oh yeah, the pilot. Fortunately, the Germans developed a method a hundred years ago to make the skin a structural member rather than just streamlining. The technique, not widely used until the 1940’s, later acquired a French name: monocoque that literally means “single shell.”   read more ...

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