Strange times we are living in. When writing my last column, I wondered aloud if things could get any worse. (I turn in my column two months prior to publication.) As it turns out, they could—and for entirely different reasons than I imagined.
In January, I moved to New Mexico to shoot a television show. As COVID-19 quarantines began, it was canceled. I stayed put in Albuquerque, deciding to ride out the storm in a place with few cases and far from the now-nightmarish density of my home in New York. As anxiety rose nationwide, including my own, I found a comforting control in focusing on my own fears. Two years ago, my first column for this magazine told the story of losing an airplane to mountain wind shear in Telluride, Colorado. It was time to practice until it felt normal again.
I found a great mountain instructor here by the name of Geoffrey Veneklasen. Having lost that airplane to wind shear two years ago, I have a keen interest in honing my alpine skills. Here in the West, takeoffs from 9,000-foot density altitudes are a common occurrence. Geoffrey showed me a lot. For starters, you learn how to lean your engine properly for best power. Windy takeoffs are dealt with by building speed in ground effect, then climbing at higher than VY speeds. As usual, knowledge lights the path forward. My fear was all based in ignorance. Now it’s just simple math that tells me when and how. Winds passing over the mountain in excess of 15 knots mean we’re not going. However, 28-knot gusts straight down the runway are no problem.
But even as my confidence as a pilot rose again, circumstances were getting stranger. Flying from KABQ to KSMO in early May, I checked the ATIS at Santa Monica, a normally very busy general aviation airport in Southern California. At the end of the recording, a different voice came on to explain that the tower would close for the day at 4 p.m. This on a Saturday afternoon, when all of the weekend pilots were out, many of whom need the extra help approaching and departing a runway smack underneath some of the busiest Class B on Earth. (Santa Monica is 4 nm away from KLAX.) During quarantine, everything was short-staffed or closed—restaurants, stores and, apparently, control towers.
It felt strange to call out downwind, base and final to an airport normally tightly controlled by largely unforgiving tower personnel. My final call before landing—”Santa Monica traffic, Bonanza short final, Two-One, Santa Monica”—was quickly met with scorn. A voice popped on the CTAF: “What exactly does short final mean? Two miles? Half a mile?”
Fair enough. I figured my earlier calls made it pretty clear where I was, but OK. I can be more specific. The larger issue at play is not my radio skill set but how quickly the world we know can become wholly unrecognizable. I quickly retreated back to New Mexico.
While the tower in Albuquerque remained open, there were plenty of strange things happening. On one flight, I was told I had “dealer’s choice” in regard to which approach was available for me to practice. In fact, the controllers sounded genuinely happy to have someone to vector around to a final approach course. They were chatty even. Apparently, COVID-19 allows me all the practice approaches I have fuel for. By contrast, when I first arrived to New Mexico in January and asked for a practice ILS to Runway 8, I’m pretty sure I heard laughter before, “Unable, state intentions.”
As one month became two, and quarantine continued, I turned to a laundry list of TLC items for the airplane. She was washed, had a new tire put on, and had her oil changed. I finally got around to installing an exterior camera mount on the aft tiedown, which afforded me a view of the gear coming up and going down—a surprisingly exciting action to witness when I played back the footage later that day.
I found a local mechanic, Fernie Nunez, owner of New Mexico Aero Services. A few columns back, I wrote about the dangers of confirmation bias. My experience with Fernie taught me that confirmation bias isn’t something you find only in the air. It happens on the ground as well. My suspicion that a smell in the cockpit was certainly 100LL was debunked when Fernie opened my brake reservoir to find it more than half-empty. I asked him to pass me the small dipstick and smelled it. Yup. Brake fluid it is. I had a leaky master cylinder right by the pedals that was leaking into the carpeting. I had just finished telling him in no uncertain terms the smell was fuel (you could only smell it first thing in the morning, when the airplane had sat overnight), and I burned through some cash having him take apart the fuel selector to look for a leak there. But as we love to say in GA, “Hey, while you’re in there…” We rebuilt both master cylinders.
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Luckily for me, Fernie specializes in Bonanzas and found a few details that were overlooked on the original installation. Those squawks plus a small oil leak sent me back up to Greeley, Colorado, to see the guys at ACE Cylinders and Advanced Aerotech. They both honored their warranties and fixed the outstanding issues. On my way home, I stopped in Akron, Colorado, at Redline Propeller, where Dan Jensen balanced my new Hartzell prop. I enjoyed watching the work. I have been slowly acclimating to the fact that most of the maintenance techniques on our airplanes are surprisingly analog in nature. Not this one. Dan used highly sensitive equipment to determine where the harmonic imbalance was. A photo cell measures rpm, and an accelerometer measures vibrations in inches per second, telling you exactly where to add the weight. But not to worry, the fix was as old-school as what I’ve become accustomed to: drilling straight into the spinner bulkhead and placing a few washers on the end of one of the screws. Keep it simple, stupid.
Knowing I’d be spending months in all this high altitude and sunshine, I made some new additions to the airplane. Jet Shades are removable darkened panels that you custom-cut to the shape of an aircraft’s windows. The result is a tremendous reduction in cabin heat and what would likely be a highly illegal tint on your car in most municipalities. The genius of the product is the alterations are not permanent, and therefore not governed by STCs and all the bureaucracy of a certified product. They can easily be yanked out, and in fact, at night I do just that.
Next on the list: replacing my broken landing light with a new Whelen Prometheus. What a difference. I went out to get night current and was shocked by how far the throw is on this modern LED unit. I had an incandescent bulb for a landing light before, and the difference is remarkable.
The next piece of kit fundamentally changed the way I fly in mountainous terrain. Mountain High makes an oxygen system that now has me flying as high as 16,000 feet around the Sandias and Rockies. Many of the Victor airways in this area require minimum altitudes where O2 is required. In the past, I had to take extended routes that afforded me lower minimum altitudes. The brilliance of this particular system is, it only administers oxygen when you inhale. All of the systems I have used in the past are steady state—they deliver oxygen at all times. The Mountain High system senses the pressure differential when you inhale and then gives you a shot of oxygen. For the pilot, this means your oxygen cylinder lasts twice as long as what a conventional system would allow.
Spring is giving way to summer, and quarantine is opening up little by little, state by state. I am packing up my life here in Albuquerque as police helicopters and sirens blare through the night. As I predicted, the world has indeed turned over once more. COVID-19 was the arbiter of change the last time I wrote in these pages. Today, it’s civil protest surrounding police brutality.
I am flying back home to New York tomorrow and feeling grateful to be able to do so safely. The word “essential” received a lot of airplay over the past few months. It closed store doors and permitted certain behaviors and choices; it designated workers in jobs that put them on the front lines of strange circumstances that we are all living through with a high degree of uncertainty. I found certainty these past months by making steady progress in my piloting skills and, bit by bit, improving an airplane I definitively call essential.
This story appeared in the August 2020 issue of Flying Magazine
Ben Younger is a TV and film writer/director, avid motorcyclist and surfer—but it’s being a pilot that he treats as a second profession. Follow Ben Younger on Instagram: @thisisbenyounger.