The Aviation Inspiration of Kermit Weeks Fantasy of Flight

The Aviation Inspiration of Kermit Weeks Fantasy of Flight

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August 31, 2013

It all began when I was sitting in the Cessnas2Oshoksh tent during EAA Airventure 2013. I had been working with the Cessnas2Oshkosh on their training videos and had flown my shared Cessna 182 alongside dozens of other Cessnas during the mass arrival. I had pitched a tent under the wing, endearingly known as the smallest tent at Oshkosh. I was browsing Facebook while waiting for my phone to charge in the little charging area that had been set up and powered by our sponsors. I scrolled down to see that Fantasy of Flight had a sweepstakes contest to fly with Kermit Weeks, and decided to apply. I had been to Fantasy of Flight 2 years before at Sun and Fun 2011, but never as an honored guest. Although I do consider myself to be an optimist, I knew that I never had any success winning contests. However, I did not let the slim odds persuade me as I was a recently instrument and commercially rated single engine pilot eager for opportunities in the fine new world of aviation.

A few weeks pass after Oshkosh, and out of the blue I received an email that I had won the Fantasy of Flight “Fly with Kermit Weeks” sweepstakes. I clearly remember the excited exclamations that filled the halls of the office when I received the email. It seemed that my luck was changing and a door had opened up for another amazing opportunity. I decided to go with the “I just won the lottery” response and immediately accepted the opportunity of a lifetime. According to the organizers, the first winner had not responded to their selection email, and I was selected next. The winner of the Explore, Express, Experience Sweepstakes was to fly with Kermit in his Fieseler Fi-156 Storch. I arranged the dates and times with the organizer and figured the most efficient way to get from Texas to Florida was by way of the Cessna 182.

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Fantasy of Flight sports a grass runway that Kermit uses to fly his aircraft. It’s a private airstrip and Kermit personally invited me to land at the museum. The journey started in Houston, TX with my first stop in Bay Minette (also coined “Babe Minette”), Alabama. The airport has been known to have women in hooters outfits working at the FBO, and was a popular destination for military training flights and general aviation pilots alike. The fuel was also decently priced, and the FBO always had free gumbo and ice cream available to visiting pilots. As a typical August day, there was no way to avoid storms around the Gulf of Mexico. As I approached Northern Florida, I started to see the storms ahead. While I did have experience with cross country flights, I hadn’t flown around Florida and ended up a bit more off the coast than I would have liked. However, I managed to keep the airplane dry with the help of visual cues and NEXRAD, and continued into the night to Kissimmee. Normally there is a TFR above Disney, but on an instrument approach you fly right over it at 2000ft. I distinctly remember flying overhead and looking down past the wheel pants as fireworks lit up the air beneath my wheels over Disney. I landed safely in Kissimmee and went to a hotel for a good night’s sleep. After all, I was expected at Fantasy of Flight the next morning by Kermit and the crew.

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The next morning, I was up early to make sure that the arrival into Orlampa (FA08), as Kermit has coined Fantasy of Flight, was uneventful. I executed a perfect soft field landing and taxied back over to the maintenance hangar where Kermit was waiting. He came over and shook my hand, and said that since I had traveled so far that he would “drop the ropes” and give me the experience of a lifetime. For many years I was bound to secrecy about the extra rides until recently.

The first airplane I flew with Kermit was a 1909 Curtiss Pusher Model D replica. It was one of my first experiences in an experimental aircraft, and it looked very old but in immaculate shape. He gave me a set of goggles and a cloth hat to put on since there was no cockpit at all. It was like flying a lawn chair with a whisky compass to guide the pilot. We flew just above the tree lines and landed within the length of the runway. The airspeed indicator looked like a 2ndgrade science project beaker that you would measure liquids in. The airplane didn’t like to turn well, so a few times Kermit had to jump out and turn it to get it re-aligned with the runway. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my career, and it gave me a great appreciation for those early 20thcentury aviators.

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After the Curtiss Pusher flight, he prepared the Storch for the main event. I hopped into the Storch and was immediately impressed by it’s short field performance. I attribute my interest in STOL to this moment as we were able to take off and land on the paved area in front of his hangar! After takeoff, we joined up for a quick formation with a Stearman flown by one of his pilots. The Stearman put their smoke on and then bowed out to continue the ride they were giving to another client. Kermit and I flew around the Fantasy of Flight property and lakes, and then Kermit demonstrated the plane’s incredibly short takeoffs and landings. I was grinning from ear to ear. I had started flying N148T, the Super Cub I would eventually buy and become my beloved Patches.

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After flying in the Storch, Kermit gave us passes to the museum and the WingWalkAir ropes experience. As I walked through the exhibits, I was once again in awe at the level of detail and effort put into each exhibit. Kermit never let anything to anyone else- his hand was in everything and his passion would show through every little detail. Part of the tour included an audio tour for each of the exhibits. I distinctly remember seeing a little girl watching an early 1900s barnstormer for the first time and getting her first airplane rid. I imagined that this likely inspired her, and figured that I would have been a barnstormer if alive in that era.

After touring the museum, we had lunch at the cafe at the museum, and then walked out to the flightline for Kermit’s daily flight display. Kermit had pulled out his P-51D, “Cripes
A’Mighty 3rd”, and it sitting there shining on the ramp in front of a packed audience. Kermit began to give the history behind the plane, and then unbeknownst to me looked over and “Sarah, do you
want to fly in my P-51?” In complete disbelief, I apparently shrieked (according to witnesses) and ran out to the plane fast as I could, just in case he would change his mind had I merely sauntered over. I had always wanted to fly in a P-51,
but at the time it was never in the budget. It was the experience of a lifetime. After all, I was flying with an aviation legend in an aviation legend!

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The first thing I remember about the plane was how loud it was, and how that powerful engine shook that plane. As Kermit brought the power up, I couldn’t stop smiling. The plane accelerated as if it had been wound up tight eagerly waiting flight and the acceleration pinned me to the
seat. As we eloped into the sky the trees got smaller and my smile even bigger. After a few low passes over the audience, we came back and landed. I was in a state of euphoria, and had to be gently reminded to get out of the airplane as I would have likely stayed there the night if not prompted! After the ride, I was invited to sit in the pilot’s seat for pictures. One of the museum staff saw me looking over the controls and contemplating my great escape and jokingly told me “don’t start it up”. Kermit and I posed for some pictures.

Shortly afterwards, I saw Kermit taxing an odd-looking amphibian airplane with an engine on the top that was painted like a leopard. It was a flying boat, a rare 1931 Sikorsky S-
39C, which was one of a few that are still flying. He motioned for me to jump in, and I climbed through the back of the airplane into it. I asked him why it was painted like a leopard, and he explained that these flying boats were originally intended for mission in Africa, and that they were painted to look familiar to the natives. Kermit added that while the concern was real, the natives actually didn’t have any problem accepting the aircraft but most Sikorsky S39s are still known for being painted like exotic animals.

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Kermit demonstrated a takeoff in the Sikorsky and he then handed the controls over to me to let me fly. I had never been in a seaplane before, and it couldn’t have been a better introduction to something that I would eventually seek experience and obtain my license in. After our last landing, he lowered the landing gear while we were sailing on the lake and then drove the plane up his boat ramp and then back down. We took off and landed back at Fantasy of Flight, where he encouraged me to get my seaplane license.

Pretty soon it was closing time, but Kermit stayed and gave us a tour of his woodworking shop where he was building a Benoist XIV from scratch to re-create the world’s first airline flight from Tampa to St. Petersburg in 1914. He also gave us a tour of the Howard Hughes’s Sikorsky S-43 that he had been restoring, as well as wild stories of Howard Hughes.

After the Sikorsky tour, Kermit invited us to meet his family and told us about his future plans for Fantasy of Flight. He explained that his goal has always been to inspire people. He explained that the airplanes are a metaphor for reaching beyond what you think you can do. In a way, I felt like he wanted to change the world, and I respected him for it. He was going to encourage people to soar as high as their dreams can reach, one person at a time. His passion inspired me to begin the beginning of a long process in which I began thinking of my own life and its associated goals, dreams, and aspirations. I left Fantasy of Flight realizing that I had more potential than I ever knew, and in a way thinking differently that when I first landed on that grass runway. It began as an expectation to ride in an exciting plane, but became a journey of self-discovery and introspection. It was the first part of a journey that would eventually push me from my network engineering job to following my dream to become an airline pilot.

I have kept in touch with Kermit since, and he was incredibly excited when I told him the news about getting a job at a major airline. I would like to express my sincere gratitude for the kind and generous actions of Kermit Weeks and Fantasy of Flight. This is a memory and experience that set me on a path toward accomplishing those dreams, and have used the lessons I learned that day to continue to inspire others.

Would training air traffic controllers to identify a possible aircraft in distress help save lives?

Would training air traffic controllers to identify a possible aircraft in distress help save lives?

Dan Gryder and FlightChops started an amazing conversation about modifying training through a grassroots effort to work toward preventing the leading cause of the rash of relentless general aviation fatal airplane crashes: loss of control. Their video dives into how the airlines has been able to maintain a nearly impeccable safety record, and provides suggestions for a “AQP Flight Review.” For those not familiar with AQP, Advanced Qualification Program, it’s the way that most airlines handle recurrent training, initial qualification, and currency.

One important topic that was brought up was on the use of all available resources in an emergency scenario, specifically air traffic control. In the video, Dan and FlightChops play out an emergency that was pre-planned with the emergency services and controllers, which showed important lessons that could be learned should that situation happen.

Another interesting topic that was bought up was on air traffic control’s role in identifying possible aircraft in distress and their reaction to such. In the video, Dan instructs his student to turn off course while receiving VFR flight following. They were not assigned a heading, and were just flying in uncontrolled airspace en route to a destination. The maneuver was meant to see what air traffic control’s reaction was to the course deviation. As evidenced in the video, there were several different reactions… ranging from no response to a “are you in distress?” response. Due to the varying nature of the response, I felt this warranted a little investigation into what exactly controllers are trained to do. I don’t feel this was improper of them, they were merely changing course on their own as many of us do while flying VFR.

I talked to a friend, mentor, and air traffic controller who was knowledgeable on the subject. As a pilot and controller, he has received an Archi award for his work in saving a pilot’s life by talking him down through the clouds. While we wish that all controllers were this in tune to an aircraft emergency, the truth is that FAA order 7110.65, the governing rules for air traffic control, provides little guidance for identifying aircraft in distress. While the controller did state that controllers do receive some training on aircraft emergencies, it’s very minimal. Controllers are told that if the pilot sounds drunk, it may be hypoxia, but many controllers couldn’t tell you off the top of their head on what attitude hypoxia occurs. While they aren’t required to have this knowledge, it can still be helpful in saving a pilot’s life, which does go above and beyond what is required in FAA order 7110.65.

I asked him specifically what he would do if he noticed an aircraft deviating from course and altitude. He told me that if the aircraft was on a heading for traffic or in controlled airspace (such as Class B), that the pilot would be immediately queried and or provided a correction. However, if the aircraft was flying VFR and outside of any conflict, it is controller’s discretion since VFR flight following is an “additional service.” He said that some controllers will say something and ask if everything is OK, while some controllers won’t say anything since they are VFR. So the truth is that 7110.65 and controller training provides little guidance on how to deal with identifying aircraft emergencies, even though ATC is one of the MOST VALUABLE RESOURCES that a pilot can have in an emergency. Additionally, the emergency procedures that air traffic controllers are taught involve a checklist, such as asking for fuel on board, souls, and arranging emergency services. While many controllers are pilots and will go above and beyond, the official guidance is ambiguous and many controllers do not want to stray beyond the minimum as they could be named as a contributing factor should an accident occur.

So the long and short of this is that I believe that this concept warrants further discussion, and that by leveraging the valuable resource of ATC to identify aircraft in distress, we may just be able to help save lives.

We want your opinion… so what are your thoughts? Would training air traffic controllers to identify a possible aircraft in distress help save lives?

Jaylon Joins the Family of Aviators

Jaylon Joins the Family of Aviators

I could not be more proud of this young man. I first met Jaylon in 2015 when he was just 14 years old as part of the EAA’s Young Eagles program. He had requested a flight through the program and I was excited to take him flying.

When he first showed up to the flight, I immediately knew he was unlike anyone I had ever taken flying. At age 14, he proudly told me that he had lots of Microsoft Flight Simulator time and was even part of a virtual airline (I didn’t even know that existed!). He had lived and breathed aviation from a young age, and knew it was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

When we went flying, I was shocked to see that although he had never been in a real plane, he was able to actually fly the plane and talk on the radios quite well. A natural pilot! Then I remember he looked over to me and said that he always wanted to go into the Houston Class B. I laughed pretty hard because I had never had a young enthusiast want to do that. After all, they usually want to make shooting noises and do steep turns! I called up approach and requested it, and they repeated back the instructions and transponder code. I looked over to change the transponder and Jaylon had already changed it. He was so excited. I knew this kid was special, and made it a point to continue to encourage his flying and hep him in any way I could.

Just like me, his family wasn’t able to support his dreams. Jaylon got a job working at the Pearland airport to help pay for his training, working every day it seemed while in high school. With the generous contributions of his instructor Tommy Etheredge who donated his time for free, he was able to finish his private pilot certificate just before starting college in Georgia. I keep saying this kid is going to go places and generations behind us will see his name in history books. I know that to be a fact. And he is no longer the young 14 year old that I took flying – he is an absolutely accomplished, hard working young man embarking on his aviation career.

And another huge thanks to everyone who has touched his life and mentored him in any way. Marcus, Katelyn, and so many others who have touched his life and given him the much needed words and actions of encouragement.

I’m so proud of you Jaylon, and I know only good things are to come. Welcome to the ranks of licensed aviators. As you go forward in your career, I hope that you continue to give back to the community and never give up on your dreams, no matter how hard it seems.

And from Tommy (his instructor):
“I am super happy for him! I’m glad it all worked out. It was tough, but he was worth helping. The examiner said he was excellent, just like you and I had encountered, and he felt it was worth helping him out as well.

I always wanted to help out someone like that since before I was a CFI, and I never thought it would happen so early in my career. It was tough, but definitely worth it. I’m glad you were able to help him when he started his flying. If he wasn’t as good as he was when I started teaching him, it would have been much harder.”

Let’s all welcome Jaylon to the family!