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Firearms, Laws, Philosophy, and Leadership

“I’m the NRA, and I vote”—for sane, reasonable, rational control of private firearms purchase and ownership.

I’ve been a target shooter for over forty-five years. For about a dozen of those years I competed seriously, in and after college, including at the U.S. national championships and the Olympic tryouts. I’ve been coached by multi-time Olympic and World Champions. I won a half-dozen state shooting championships in three different states. I coached and taught others to shoot and to improve their shooting. For me, “gun control” means improving my ability to hit as close to the center of the paper target’s concentric rings as I can, more and more consistently.

I was in my early teens when I got my first target rifle, a .22 cal. Anschutz Model 64. Later in my teens, I became a life member of the U.S. governing body for the competitive shooting sports, the National Rifle Association. Among the NRA’s primary missions then were the promotion of competitive shooting, preservation of and continued access to open lands conducive to enjoyable and safe hunting, and firearm safety. Having come to enjoy the outdoors, thanks in large part to Scouting, I strongly supported those three missions.

Something has happened in the intervening years.

The NRA’s mission has been perverted.

Firearm safety? Where is there the promotion of firearm safety in advocating the arming of elementary school staff?

Firearm safety? Where is there the promotion of firearm safety in the insistence of allowing private ownership of magazines capable of holding 30, 40, 100 rounds of ammunition?

After the murders of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, the NRA had the perfect opportunity to show national leadership on the political stage. After those murders, more than any others in many years at that time, the call for change was broad, deep, and loud. After those murders, the NRA could have taken the lead and said, “It’s more than enough: it’s too much. Something must change. We must change. We, the people in the United States, must change how we think and how we talk and how we listen about private firearms ownership. We must change what we see on screen, what we glorify, what we promote, away from ever more realistic, ever more frequent depiction of violence—especially with firearms.”

Instead, only a few weeks after those murders, the NRA endorsed a new first-person shooter video game—a game that inures its players to using violence. Instead, the NRA declared that we should deploy armed guards in our schools. Instead, the NRA’s leadership dug in its collective heels and vehemently opposed any meaningful change in our discourse, our country’s laws, and even our psyche.

The dialogue must change. The tenor of the discourse must change.

It’s not that the most recent 102 more victims—49 more dead, 53 more wounded at Pulse nightclub in Orlando—were young. It’s not that the most recent 102 more victims were part of a specific community, the Latino community. It’s not that the most recent 102 more victims were part of another specific community, the LGBTQ community. It’s that the most recent 102 more victims were people: forty-nine more people who died and fifty-three more people who were wounded by a lunatic. A lunatic who used a gun.

I don’t care whether the gun was legal in Florida or not. I don’t care whether the configuration of the rifle was legal or not. I don’t care whether the murderer possessed that firearm legally or not. After all, the murderer didn’t care. Neither did the victims—or the families and friends and colleagues and communities who survive them and mourn them, or those recovering from their injuries and the trauma of the attack.

How we talk about gun violence in this country must change. How we talk about any violence in this country must change.

How should it change?

Stop glorifying violence.

Start passing and implementing further reasonable controls on private firearm ownership. Unlike what perhaps the NRA would like us to believe, there are already restrictions on private firearm ownership in the U.S. Those can be extended without impeding hunting or competition (except competitions that focus solely on those firearms). There are already restrictions on some people’s ownership of firearms in general. In fact, Franklin Orth, who was NRA Executive Vice-President during the Congressional debate on the Gun Control Act of 1968, supported a ban on mail-order sales, stating, “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.” (Lee Harvey Oswald purchased the rifle he used to murder President Kennedy by mail—legally, at the time—and one of the provisions of GCA 68 banned mail-order firearms purchases.)

I think we could make similar statements about many of the firearms used in large-scale multi-victim murders.

GCA 68 has not been ruled unconstitutional. The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, also known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, is no longer law not because it was unconstitutional, but because of a ten-year sunset clause and Congress’s unwillingness to renew the law in 2004. (In 2004, the Republican Party held a majority in the Senate and in the House, and George W. Bush, a Republican, was president.)

Laws will not change the behavior of those who break them. It is already illegal to murder someone. A law prohibiting possession of an instrument of that murder is just one more law.

Why pass more laws, then?

Because it will begin the change we need. Legislation can be a continuing catalyst to changing the way we talk about violence and violent crime in the United States. Legislation will not be a short-term fix: there are no short-term fixes, and that’s a big part of the problem. The United States, as a nation, has a short attention span. The United States, as a nation, would rather see a quick fix that’s minimally effective than a long-term fix that actually works. But, there is no quick fix for this problem. Fixing this problem will take a generation.

A generation.

Just because we cannot fully resolve the problem does not free us from beginning the work.

Does the Second Amendment guarantee the right to private firearm ownership? The United States Supreme Court has said it does (in District of Columbia v. Heller—a split decision of 5-4). How broadly can “…shall not be infringed” be interpreted? Not beyond the limits of GCA 68. Within these bounds lies the area for discussion. Within these bounds—not at the one pole of complete prohibition of firearm ownership and confiscation of all private firearms, nor at the other pole of utterly unfettered private access to all firearms of any type—lies the area about which we must talk and listen, listen and talk.

The conversation must move from one of sides and camps and entrenchment to one of compromise. Compromise and cooperation are the only ways that we can solve this problem. Any other route will, at best, result in a small and short-term change instead of a lasting change. Along the way, the conversation must, especially, focus on our national psyche, on changing our society from one which promotes and glorifies violence to one which does not.

“I’m the NRA, and I vote”—for sane, reasonable, rational control of private firearms purchase and ownership, for sane discussion, for listening, for compromising, for reaching a viable and workable middle ground, for changing the way we talk and listen, for beginning to change our national psyche.

The Landing

Piccard (Bertrand, not Jean-Luc) came in from the west. It looked like he was setting up for a right downwind runway 14R at Moffett (KNUQ). I was a bit disappointed. Though it was certainly cool to see Solar Impulse 2 flying, it was dark (about 11:30 pm), and all I could really see where SI2’s lights—and I’d been hoping to be right under the final approach path. But, with a 14 landing, I be looking all the way down a long runway to see the landing.

Solar Impulse 2 was on its way to Moffett Federal Airfield, with Bertrand Piccard flying, was nearing completion of a truly epic leg on an epic journey. The journey: fly around the world in an airplane completely powered by electricity, generated by 17,000 solar cells atop (mostly) the wings, stored in on-board batteries to last the night (when coupled with slowly gliding down from over 25,000′). The leg: Hawai’i-California.


Single pilot.

60 hours.

I started moving to another part of the fence between us, on the sidewalk of the frontage road that runs between the US-101 highway and the light rail tracks the run past the approach end of Moffett’s runways 32, to find what I hoped would be a good vantage from which to watch the landing across the airfield. As I looked for SI2, turning base-to-final or on final approach, I saw that Piccard was not landing on either of the runways 14: he was heading for the right downwind runways 32—probably 32R, since it’s the longer, and has an ILS for additional guidance.

I got excited, and headed back to where I’d been, or near there. Solar Impulse 2 was going to fly right past me—past us, the dozens of people congregated along the frontage road—on short final!

SI2 is a remarkable airplane. It’s among the ultimate form-follows-function craft, designed with one purpose in mind: to fly for as long as a pilot can fly, using no fossil fuels, powered only by electricity generated from photovoltaic cells.

  • Wingspan: 71.9 meters (236 feet), bigger than a 747-400’s wingspan by over 7 meters, and 6½ times bigger than my Mooney’s.
  • Length: 22.4 meters (73.5 feet), just shy of three times longer than my Mooney.
  • Energy source: 17,238 PV cells, atop the wings, fuselage, and tailplane, able to generate 66 kW.
  • Energy storage: 4 batteries, each with a capacity of 41 kWh.
  • Maximum weight: 2,300 kg (5,100 pounds)
  • Power: 4 electric motors, each producing 13 kW (17.4 HP), driving propellers 4 meters in diameter.

The cockpit’s unpressurized, and unheated, to save weight. At altitude Piccard wears an oxygen mask and uses a delivery system like the one we have in the Mooney (pulse-demand, from Mountain High): it allows for much longer oxygen duration from a given volume, and also dehydrates the user much less (compared with conventional continuous-delivery systems).

The general pattern with SI2 is to take off with fully charged batteries, during the day, then slowly climb to 7,500-8,500 meters (about 25,000-28,000 feet), keeping the batteries charged. As the sun sets and the electric generation wanes, manage the power output of the motors, and the electricity needs, and slowly descend, ending up between about 1,000 and 1,500 meters (3,000-5,000 feet) as the sun rises and the PV cells begin to generate electricity again. Climb slowly and charge the batteries, and repeat as needed.

I started to get the camera ready as Piccard flew right downwind. With a ground speed of about 30 knots and the leading edges of the wings sporting 16 LED landing lights, it was very easy. Piccard completed his base leg, and turned final. I took a few pictures.

By tracking SI2’s ground track relative to me, I could tell Piccard was lining up with the runway a bit to my right (as I was facing away from the runways, watching SI2). I moved to position myself better.

It was almost eerie as Piccard flew Solar Impulse 2 just a few dozen meters, perhaps a hundred feet, above my head. I could barely hear any noise from the props as the slowly turned and Piccard descended. Passing us, above the frontage road, he turned off the two outboard motors, I expect so he’d have less thrust to contend with as SI2 entered ground effect and the drag lessened.

Then, they were down. 60 hours of flying, non-stop from Hawai’i.

Solar Impulse 2 on short final, runway 32R, Moffett (KNUQ)

Solar Impulse 2 on short final, runway 32R, Moffett (KNUQ)

On Bruckner

Friday evening, I went to the San Francisco Symphony with a good friend. On the program were Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and Bruckner’s Third Symphony. With my friend on my left, I had a couple of women to my right: it looked to be a woman in her thirties or very early forties, and a woman older, maybe in her late sixties or early seventies, perhaps the younger woman’s mother or aunt. As sometimes happens, the younger woman, who happened to be between the older woman and me, and I struck up a bit of a conversation.

She mentioned she didn’t really know Bruckner. I commented that, though I’ve enjoyed Bruckner’s music for many years, I had recently learned a new way to approach and appreciate his music, from the “Explore the Symphony” podcast published by the NAC Orchestra of Canada. (In that podcast Marjolaine Fournier and Jean-Jacques van Vlasselaer discuss the composer and piece featured in an upcoming concert.) The episode in question was on Bruckner’s Ninth, but much of the time, van Vlasselaer and Fournier discussed the composer, and Bruckner’s work in general. Regarding Bruckner’s music, as the synopsis of the podcast explains:

Words like “epic” and “timeless” are regularly applied to Bruckner symphonies. They have a pace of their own. But let yourself get in synch with their pulse, and you’ll be richly rewarded.

During the podcast, the notion of that pace was discussed at some length. Van Vlaselaer and Fournier explained that one must be patient with Bruckner, and the conductor must understand the necessary patience. The discussed that with Bruckner, it’s as much about the spaces between the notes as about the notes themselves—not about the silences, but about the spaces.

I liken it to differentiating between a theme being built note by note, chord by chord, as opposed to being built measure by measure. Bruckner’s progression are longer than those of most composers, his themes more expansive.

I explained some of this to my seat neighbor, noting especially that one must be patient with Bruckner’s music and let it develop. She likened it to the way one must be with a cat.

That doesn’t feel right, but at the time I couldn’t come up with another analogy that worked. It’s certainly not like a typical dog, eager to please, eager to be with you, wanting your companionship as much as you want its.

Later, well after the concert, it hit me.

Listening to Bruckner is like whipping cream.

With Bruckner, you cannot be a passive listener. You have to go get the music as it comes to you. It will come at its own pace, but once there, you need to go get it—actively.

When I’ve whipped cream by hand, with a whisk, I nearly became discouraged and quit—except I needed the whipped cream for the dessert. I whipped and whipped and whipped—and nothing happened. And I whipped and whipped and whipped some more—and nothing happened. And I whipped and whipped and whipped and whipped and whipped and whipped and whipped some more—and still, nothing happened. So I whipped and whipped and whipped some more.

Voilà! Whipped cream!

Suddenly, when the cream was darn good and ready, it became whipped cream. Almost instantaneous was the transformation.

Such is Bruckner. You cannot be passive. You have to go get it, and go get it, and go get it as it comes to you. And then, almost all at once—yet lasting an hour—it’s there.

After the concert, my neighbor told me she enjoyed the piece. I hoped that my very brief explanation helped her. I, also, enjoyed Blomstedt’s conducting and the orchestra’s playing. There were many smiles in that hall, both among the audience and on stage.

Gear Down—or Not

Glideslope intercept, gear down.

Hmm…the indicator shows the barber pole, not the pretty green gear down indication. The Gear Down annunciator is dark, too. Hmm…this isn’t good.

Move the handle back to the up position, and try again.

Still no joy.

Landing gear circuit breakers? Nope: all look just fine. Okay, let’s try cycling the breakers and trying again.

Same thing. The landing gear just stayed up, in their cozy gear wells.

“Approach, 2FR has a gear problem. Going missed.”

“2FR roger, climb and maintain 4,000, fly the missed approach procedure. Say intentions.”

Darn, darn, darn. Things were looking great on this solo instrument proficiency flight. The clouds were cooperating (i.e., they were there), there were just enough bumps in the clouds to keep me from being bored, I was on centerline and glidepath, airspeed and power were just where I wanted them. This was looking to be a good exercise.

Then, it became an even better exercise.

There was no instructor aboard playing games with me. This wasn’t a simulator. This was the real thing: in the soup, in the bumps, with a bona fide landing gear problem.

“2FR, radar vectors, please, to Palo Alto.”

“Mooney 2FR, are you declaring?”

“2FR, negative at this time.” Why not declare the emergency? It wasn’t yet. I didn’t feel I needed priority treatment. I had a plan: climb, get someplace out of people’s hair (airports aren’t such places, especially when someone else wants to get in), slow below the 140 knot gear extension speed, and go through the checklist for manual gear extension.

“Mooney 2FR, roger, turn left heading 150, climb and maintain 5,000. Proceed direct Woodside when able.”

“2FR, left to 150, 5,000, direct Woodside.”

I made the turn, got the climb going, and got the navigation set up. While leveling off, I decreased the power to stabilize at about 130 knots.

Even if the gear stayed stuck in the wells—certainly possible, but I guessed that to be unlikely, and the manual extension procedure likely to be effective—an intentional gear up landing isn’t a major emergency. Keep your wits about you and you’ll scrape the belly, bend the propeller, and maybe break the engine (at least, the engine will need to be torn down for inspection: engines don’t like going from, say, 800 rpm to 0 rpm when forced to do that by the propeller!). Keep your wits about you, make a good landing, and you might skid around a bit, but you’re not going to cartwheel or do flips or explode into a ball of flaming av gas. You’ll clog the runway for a while until someone can come haul your airplane off the runway, but that’s about it.

Things got a bit busy in here, what with the turn and the climb and the navigation and the leveling off and a frequency change. I realized that some of that might have been eliminated if I’d declared an emergency. Short of that, I could always have told the controller to stand by, or asked for something different, or said “unable.” I wasn’t yet really at task saturation, though, but did recognize that the workload was—momentarily, I hoped—rather high.

With the checklist on the seat beside me, I went through the items.

  1. Airspeed: 140 KIAS or less.
  2. Landing gear actuator circuit breaker: PULL.
  3. Gear switch: DOWN.
  4. Manual extension mechanism: UNLATCH.
  5. Gear extension T-handle: PULL SLOWLY 1-2″ to engage the clutch.
  6. T-handle: PULL AND RETURN 12-20 times, until GEAR DOWN indicators are seen.
  7. Gear down indicators: CHECK.
  8. Manual extension mechanism: STOW.
  9. Landing gear actuator circuit breaker: RESET.

I was glad I had only one interruption here from the controller (a frequency change, just after I’d pulled the circuit breaker). I acknowledged, thanked the controller for her help, and contacted the next controller. That exchange was pretty routine. I returned to the checklist. Sure enough, the gear came down after 16 pulls of that handle. At least, the indicators showed the gear was down, and the airplane flew as if the gear was down. Through this all, I had the autopilot engaged, and I was monitoring it. Good way to shed workload. (I had been hand-flying the approach, for the practice. George [the autopilot] took over after I was established on that 150° heading.)

“Approach, 2FR, landing gear indicates down. I’ll continue to Palo Alto with the gear down.”

“2FR, roger. This will be radar vectors DOCAL” (for the instrument approach to Palo Alto).

“2FR, understand.”

After some maneuvering, “Mooney 2FR is 2 miles from DOCAL, cross DOCAL at 4,500, cleared GPS 31 approach.”

“Mooney 2FR, DOCAL at 4,500, cleared GPS 31 Palo Alto.”

Down the approach I went, no problems. Not long after I broke out beneath the clouds, NorCal Approach told me to contact Palo Alto Tower. I thanked the controller for his assistance, as I had his predecessor in the previous sector.

“Palo Alto Tower, Mooney 2FR, inbound on the GPS 31. Landing gear appears down. I’d like to make a low approach and have you visually check the gear, then come around to land.”

“Mooney 2FR, Palo Alto Tower. That’s approved: cleared low approach, then circle north for landing.”

“2FR, clear low approach, then I’ll fly a normal pattern to land.”

“2FR, approved.”

I flew at 75 knots about 50′ off the runway, and tower reported that the gear appeared down. Doing a go-around from 50′ and 75 knots when already in level flight is pretty straightforward, but still not trivial: I just kept flying the airplane they way I’d been taught, the way I’d trained, the way I’d flown for 30-some years. Except this time, I left the gear down during the climb-out! During that climb-out, tower cleared me to land, informing me I was #1.

Right downwind abeam, where I’d usually lower the gear, I found myself with nothing to do. Well, nothing other than to fly the airplane, and ensure I was ready for the approach—complete with a soft field landing, touching down gently just in case something was wrong with the gear.

Right downwind, 800′, about 120 knots, at the 45° point, I reduced power to 1700 rpm, let the speed decay, then brought in approach flaps (15°). Turn base. Everything looks good, turn final.

Full flaps, retrim. A touch high: speed brakes out. On airspeed, on centerline, on glidepath, slight left crosswind, corrected, aligned with the runway. Speed brakes stowed. On centerline, on glidepath, airspeed looks good, runway alignment good. Flare, keep a touch of power in. Ease down, ease down, a gentle SQUEAK-SQUEAK! Leave everything alone, keep the nose up, nose up, now fly the nose onto the runway. Gentle braking, roll it out to the end.

“Mooney 2FR, turn left on Echo, Ground 125.0 when clear.” The only acknowledge I gave immediately was a click of the mic: I was too busy. Tower could wait. Then, when I’d slowed nicely, still tracking straight and approaching the left turn onto taxiway Echo, “2FR, left on Echo, then to Ground.”

After clearing the runway, I paused a moment, then got the airplane ready to taxi. When I was ready, I called Ground. While taxiing to the hangar, I called, “Ground, 2FR, my thanks to everyone in the cab for your help today.” “2FR, roger, I’ll relay that.”

I’ll call the shop tomorrow and get them to look at the gear. My uneducated guess: a broken micro-switch, broken wire, or dead gear motor.

Thank you, Rick, Ann, Barbara, Heather, and Peter. Your good instruction helped make this a simple thing to bring to successful completion, and helped me fly the best soft-field landing I’d ever flown.

Headset Flight Testing

In my posting on emergency descent training, I mentioned that the primary purpose of the flight was a test flight. Specifically, I was testing a headset after a warranty return. Though this wouldn’t normally make a worthy topic, this time is an exception.

Many years ago, I upgraded a DC H10-80 passive noise reducing headset to ANR, with a retrofit kit. (This was my second aviation headset. My first was a Telex D-950. That was back when most airplanes didn’t have a built-in intercom, so I bought my own portable unit. I even rigged up a battery pack for it, using an old ELT battery that I got for free from my local shop, since many airplanes then had no work 12V or 24V power plug.) It worked wonderfully, and I really like the setup. That headset was very comfortable (despite what some others said and reviewers wrote: I’d worn the set on a few very long flights—two and three legs of four hours per leg), and the ANR retrofit made a notable difference. I was absolutely sold.

Eventually, I decided it was time to get a new headset. I wanted something at least as comfortable, and ideally more so. Given the advances in materials and other technology, I figured that shouldn’t be harder, since all the manufacturers were touting lighter and more comfie and quieter.

Oh, and expensive. Oh, well.

I chose a Lightspeed Zulu. But, there was a concern. The Zulu’s specs noted something like 15,000′ or 18,000′ as the listed maximum altitude, and I wanted something for FL250. I called Lightspeed and asked them if they had tested it to, or heard of anyone successfully using it at, those altitudes. No, they had not. After discussing things for a while, we agreed that I’d check back in a few months.

A few months later, sure enough, I checked back. Still no data.

Another few months later, I checked back again. Still no data. I offered to test fly the unit if they’d send me one, there being no place locally I could buy one. I’d buy the headset if it worked, return it if it didn’t. A few days later, a headset showed up. As I’d promised, I flew it up to FL250 (maybe even FL270: I don’t recall now), and it worked beautifully. I’d found my headset.

When Lightspeed came out with the Zulu.2, I bought when. Again, expensive. Oh, well. In fact, my partner and I also bought one for the airplane—i.e., that headset just lives in the airplane. I found the Zulu.2 a bit quieter, with overall better performance. I liked the Bluetooth hook-up. It was more comfortable, too. But, on my Grand Tour (and others) trip last year, when I was climbing through about 16,000′ on the first leg (KPAO-KSJN, en route KGTU), my Zulu.2 started warbling, exhibiting feedback. Pushing gently on the earcups eliminated the feedback. I tried the ship’s Zulu.2, which I also had along, and that exhibited no problems at all.

I contacted Lightspeed and shipped them the headset for a warranty repair. They accepted the warranty request with no qualms at all. I got the headset back and, when I continued the trip after a month’s layover, found the same problems with the headset. Lightspeed gave me some advice on some adjustments, and I tried those out—to no avail. I called again, and they gave me some more recommendations.

It was a few months before I could get back to high enough altitude to give the headset another try. Although it was better, it still wasn’t good enough. Again, Lightspeed authorized the warranty repair immediately when I contacted them. Moreover, they returned the headset pretty quickly. This time, I didn’t want to wait: I carved out time to fly.

Assuming this headset was properly repaired this time, I decided just to plan from the start to head high. I know that going into the Class A isn’t trivially done: it’s all IFR up there, and ATC’s not in the habit of just letting you “fly around here for a while so I can check this thing out.” I figured I’d call Oakland Center (for those who aren’t pilots, this the the air traffic control facility handling high altitude and trans-Pacific flights, with rough north-south boundaries of Mt. Shasta and San Luis Obispo) and ask them what would work well for them given the time (early evening) and altitude (FL250—25,000′) of my flight. They recommended PXN-CZQ-OAL and return. I filed for that.

ATC was great. I really didn’t care about the routing, but they allowed me to cut the KPAO-PXN-CZQ corner and head direct CZQ pretty quickly after departure. Even better, there was a minimum of step climbing: my climb to altitude was about as direct as I’ve ever received, especially once I was clear of the KSJC arrival corridor. NorCal Approach and Oakland Center did a fine job.

Climbing through 15,000′, the headset was rock-solid.

Climbing through FL180, the headset was rock-solid.

Arriving at FL250, the headset was rock-solid.

“Oakland Center, Mooney 2FR, request FL270. I’d like to continue this test a little higher, please.”

“Mooney 2FR, climb and maintain FL270.”

“2FR, out of 250 for 270.”

Climbing through FL260, the headset was rock-solid. But, around FL265, I started picking up a very, very slight amount of feedback ringing. It was a little worse at FL270, but the headset was still usable there. Since I don’t cruise above FL250, this effectively gives me 1,500-2,000 feet of headroom.

I was a happy guy, and I turned for home—interrupted slightly by that emergency descent work I mentioned.

Emergency Descent Training

Most of the people I consider to be good pilots think about flying a lot. Much of that thinking goes into emergency planning. What do I do if X or Y or Z happens? What’s my memory checklist for this situation? How can I simplify what I’m doing to make it less susceptible to error? Can I change my flying to manage the risks I choose to take more effectively? How can I be more comfortable in this environment?

One thing I think about a bunch is handling emergencies at high altitudes. For me, high altitude runs from somewhere between 12,000′ and 15,000′ up to FL250 [25,000′], depending on the situation. For example, a cockpit fire is a “high altitude” emergency starting around 12,000′ (and maybe lower!), because I want to get on the ground, in a controlled manner, really really really quickly. An oxygen failure represents a “high altitude” emergency at around FL220. (Why do I choose this altitude? Two reasons: first, it’s high enough that time of useful consciousness is relatively short, 5-10 minutes; second: if you lollygag around, you’re in trouble, because you need to get down to thicker [i.e., breathable] air right now.)

My typical long-range cruise altitude eastbound—when I have a tailwind—is FL250. Time of useful consciousness is around 2-4 minutes. I’ve been thinking about oxygen emergencies for many years, and have had one in-flight oxygen exhaustion problem. Though I was at comparatively lower altitudes then—FL190, if I recall, on my way to Boise (KBOI)—it’s still not my favorite place to be with no supplemental oxygen. (The problem was a leaky connector. We—I was with one of my sons on that trip—first noticed it when one of the oxygen flow indicators started showing more red than green. A double-check of the quantity gauge and the problem was clear: we were out of oxygen.) I was very glad that I had a small emergency bottle on board, and all I had to do was to turn on the flow and ask ATC for a descent to 11,000′. At 11,000′, I turned off the emergency oxygen, which had a total of about ten minutes’ duration when the bottle was full, with the plan to exhaust that bottle as I descended and prepared for the approach.

On that trip, I had a cannula plumbed into the emergency bottle underneath my mask. It was a reasonably good setup.

These days, I use the same emergency supply system, but now plumb it directly into the mask feed line. I cut the feed line, spliced in an aquarium T connector, and connected the emergency bottle to one arm of the T. Now, I don’t even need the extra cannula.

But, what would I have done if I’d been cruising at FL250, instead of FL190, on that trip to KBOI? What will I do when I’m heading, say, to Colorado or points east and have an oxygen emergency at FL250?

I’ve practiced the drill a bit in a PCATD-style simulator, reviewed the procedures at some length, and done a bunch of visualization drills, but never flown the real thing. Until last night. Though the primary mission for last night wasn’t this drill, I took advantage of being at altitude.

When I turned for home, approaching CVQ VOR (this test flight took me to CVQ, then OAL, back to CVQ, and home to KPAO), ATC asked me to descend to FL240. I then asked ATC for a very rapid descent to 12,000′, and explained that I would be exceeding 4,000 fpm in the descent. The controller thanked me for that info (otherwise, she would have been very alarmed at the descent rate!), and coordinated with the next controller. I quickly received my descent to 12,000′. Check the time, wait about 20 seconds to simulate the delays in awareness, recognition, and beginning my response. Then:

  • Emergency oxygen on.
  • Throttle idle.
  • Speed brakes deployed.
  • At 140 KIAS, gear down.
  • At gear down, 160 KIAS (max gear down speed is 165 KIAS).
  • When able, prop full forward (increases drag).

Wow. Hang on to your hat! It felt like I was pointing just about straight down!

As I established the high speed descent, ATC gave me a frequency change. In an actual emergency, I would have declared a MAYDAY by then, and perhaps declined the frequency change, or at least delayed it. As it was, I had good oxygen flow and had no problems complying promptly.

6,000 fpm, and down I went. (For the math geeks out there, 160 knots ground speed and 6,000 fpm down translates to a 37% gradient, or about a 20º descent angle.) It really was quite a view out the windscreen.

I tried adding a 45º banked 360 to the mix (with ATC approval). That added a lot of extra workload, and was extremely disorienting, making it more difficult to hold airspeed and to roll out on the desired heading. (It might be easier to manage this if IMC, actually, if one has practiced steep turns on instruments recently enough.) It didn’t increase the descent rate enough to make it worth the extra workload. I’ve deleted the bank from my emergency descent checklist.

Starting about 2,000′ above my target altitude, I began leveling off. Knowing how quickly I was descending, I wanted to make this very gentle, and give the engine time to respond. (What if the engine hadn’t responded, and I had an engine failure? Heck, I still had 12,000′ of altitude to glide with, and I was talking with ATC. Getting to a reasonable place for an emergency landing—even an airport—wouldn’t have been a big problem, since I was well within 20nm of lots of places to land.)

The drill went very smoothly, overall. From FL240, I was at 12,000′ in under 2½ minutes from when I checked the time, and below FL200 in just over a minute. With time of useful consciousness increasing rapidly with descending altitude (~10-20 minutes at FL200, depending on just whose data you accept, 30 minutes or more at FL180), the emergency situation improves fairly quickly even if not on oxygen, though an emergency oxygen supply makes this whole situation much less dire.

Mission accomplished. I now have the additional confidence of knowing what to expect, and what the view out the window will be like, when I have to initiate this drill for real.

Early TIshrei crescent moon at sunset, from above the south SF Bay Area.

Early Tishrei crescent moon at sunset, from above the south SF Bay Area. I took this on the outbound leg.