Tag Archives: pilot

Logging Aerobatics Flight Time in a North American SNJ-4

This is such a pretty plane, a 1943 North American SNJ-4, WW2 fighter pilot training plane (also known as a T6 Texan but the SNJ is the Navy version?):

1943 North American SNJ-4

And I got to fly it this morning!!! This plane is visiting Fairbanks, Alaska this summer with its amazing pilot, Andy Bibber (long time Alaskan bush pilot and CFII). Rumor has it that he is self taught in aerobatics (that statement is hearsay but I really believe it to be true) which is fascinating to me because he is so sharp, so on top of every little thing that happens in the air. If you are in Fairbanks between now and September 2015, I highly recommend calling him to take a flight – it’s worth the money because let’s be honest, where/when else are you going to be able to fly in a machine so unique? (call 907-474-0099 – that isn’t his direct number but I will update this post when I find his card) Andy is also bringing a biplane to Fairbanks that quite a few pilots are really excited to be trying out in mid-July.

So you approach the plane from the left:

1943 North American SNJ-4 (I admit I haven’t done much research on the plane but here is some open source information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_T-6_Texan)

Put on a parachute that also doubles as a seat cushion. Something like this:

And climb into the back seat. I don’t feel my pictures accurately show how big the plane is. I’m about 5’1″ and I was just tall enough to grab one foot peg and still swing my left leg onto the black grippy portion of the wing.

4 point seatbelt attached. Was told I could leave the canopy open – heck yes, it was lovely outside. Safety briefing paraphrased by me: Pilot: ‘if anything happens I’ll say “bail-out, bail-out, bail-out”. You open the canopy by pulling the red handle and pushing the clear overhead dome forward.’

Red handle of canopy, open canopy as seen from back seat of SNJ-4
Red handle of canopy, open canopy as seen from back seat of SNJ-4

Safety briefing continued: ‘Detach seatbelt and dive for the trailing edge of the wing. The plane is moving so the horizontal stabilizer (attached to plane tail) won’t hit you.’ Gee thanks for that last line?

Aiming point in case of bail-out.
Aiming point in case of bail-out.

I’m left to ponder the instrument panel and other plane parts as the pilot put on his parachute and climbed in.

SNJ-4 rear seat instrument panel
SNJ-4 rear seat instrument panel
Trim wheel to my left: wow that’s big. Flaps like the electric flaps I used in the 172.
Throttle, mixture, and prop control in middle of picture. Mags underneath. Landing gear lights at picture right.
No yoke - I get to use a stick! And for the first time, rudder pedals that were comfortable for my very short height!
No yoke – I get to use a stick! And for the first time, rudder pedals (adjustable) that were comfortable for my very short height!

Five shots of primer sounded [and looked] like 20 (I could see some moving parts from the back). Engine was turned on and we were waiting the good long while needed for the oil temperature to rise high enough. It was as this point that I dropped my phone like a n00b. It fell into the large open area underneath my seat, at least a foot and a half below where I could reach. Darn it. The pilot climbed out, removed his parachute, opened the rear storage, climbed into the open space beneath my seat, and retrieved my phone. Embarrassing. Reminder for all future flights where I intend to go upside down: bring the phone holster and clip to attach it to my body for hands free pictures.

Taxi to the runnup area at 2R. It’s funny that none of the plane’s occupants can see out the front of the plane (extreme tailwheel). Taxiing was accomplished with wide S turns across the entire width of the taxiway for the long haul out to 2R (taxiway length traveled: approximately 6500ft (1.2 miles!)) – nice to go crazy with large slow turns (from my perspective as a student pilot in a Cessna who is required to do normal boring straight taxis).

Normal runnup as I’ve done in the Cessnas but with the added step of checking the propeller (as I’ve seen from flights in any of my flight school’s Pipers).

Ready for takeoff, 2R, PAFA
Ready for takeoff, 2R, PAFA

Takeoff felt the same as it always does except that the cockpit was open. Similar to my ride in a biplane, the air rushing by felt amazing. It was an incredible morning in Fairbanks: so beautiful and the colors so vivid.

Just took off from runway 2R at PAFA, looking back at the airport.
Just took off from runway 2R at PAFA, looking back at the airport.

As soon as we got the ‘turn on course’ okay from Fairbanks departure, the pilot took us for a [unexpected from my perspective] steep left turn. Oh boy, what have I signed up for?!? Exciting! The controls were handed fully over to me (pilot put his hands in the air above his head at one point, haha) and we flew out to the Goldstream area. This plane is so fast compared to anything I’ve piloted! Exhilarating!

When leveling out at 4000 ft, CFI suggested I use trim. I turned the wheel for nose down trim as much as I normally would in a 152 … and the plane did a dramatic-feeling pitch down- oops, light touch, tiny movements – must remember that. I was told to do two turns, did shallow left and right turns (15 degrees or so) because I was too nervous to go steeper – AHHH, I missed out. I was happy with my altitude holding on the right turn, but the left felt like a sine wave disaster (wavering about 300ft off my desired altitude at the worst of it).

Then we moved to the aerobatics portion of the flight. We closed the front and back canopies because if the engine caught fire in a maneuver and the canopy was open, the flames would come into the cockpit – yeah, let’s avoid that. Pilot said we should head 180 degrees away from the hills before starting an aileron roll; he just pulls the stick so we go up and over – no time for this straight and level turn business I suppose! πŸ™‚ Pilot talked through the main points of each maneuver; I did my best to remember and follow everything going on, but I make no guarantees to the accuracy of anything I’ve typed here. I also suggest watching the following video clips without sound because it is just loud engine noise.

First up: aileron roll to left and the right. (I thought we started at 4000 ft, pitched down for airspeed of 140 kts, pulled up, entered roll…this isn’t supported by my video as far as I can tell…..but I feel my memory was allowed to be wonky today; after the first roll, I suddenly realized I hadn’t taken my motion sickness pill [because I got the dizzy feeling I remember from my time on boats], oh no).

Did 2 loops. Started at 4000 ft, pitch down for airspeed of 160 kts and pull back for loop. Had extra airspeed after the loops so we also ended the loops with some rolls.

Hammerhead maneuver, I don’t even remember any airspeed numbers. Textbook says: 1/4 of a loop; executed by pulling up from level flight. All I remember are the words ‘and we don’t stall because the plane doesn’t stop flying’ (?)….but I was definitely feeling the effects of motion sickness (sudden extreme headache, a desire to find a plastic bag….[but never needed the bag, yay!]) by this point, so take what you will from my words. Also had enough airspeed to end in a roll I believe. The hammerhead was striking to me because it felt so gentle. Nothing like a stall in a C150/C152 (which was what I was expecting).

Then, all too soon, going back to PAFA:

Fairbanks International Airport, PAFA
Fairbanks International Airport (PAFA), and the greater Fairbanks area as viewed from inside the SNJ-4

Opening the canopy for fresh air helped immensely. I haven’t gotten motion sickness in small planes before, but I now thoroughly understand the importance of (and will appreciate) fresh air vents.

A marvelous flight overall and 0.6 hours of SNJ-4 time in my logbook. Would love to learn more aerobatics in the future (as long as I set reminders to take my meclizine – even now, 12 hours later, my head still aches if I turn my head too fast).

Ah Fairbanks, no wonder people save up for years to visit here. I love living here.

Fairbanks, Alaska 1am on an early June evening, looking north

Short Term Survival

One of the things that terrifies me about learning to fly is ‘what happens if I have to emergency land in a remote location/crash?’ My morbid mind knows that if I don’t survive, then I won’t be around to care, and the fear is moot; however, my instructors keep reassuring me that if you take the correct actions, most small-airplane crashes are survivable. Yay.

But then what? In Alaska, if one goes down and survives, it will likely be in really remote brush and tundra. I know nothing about the wilderness. My job is to process satellite data in a cushy office building. I’ve never been fishing, I’ve only cooked deboned fish filets from the freezer section, never gone hunting, never gone camping away from a main road, never made an outdoor cooking fire, never taken a first aid course, have forgotten all my CPR training – you get the picture.

If one files a flight plan and doesn’t close it, local law enforcement starts looking for you at the landing airport at T+30 minutes after expected arrival. It’s likely that it will be about T+2 hours before any aircraft takes off to look for you. Best case scenario: the 406Mhz ELT can be location accurate to within ~2miles? (assuming it actually activates in the crash) Factor in travel time for the rescue planes to get to your general location and add in time for them to actually physically see you. A crash survivor needs the ability to stay alive for several hours to days for rescuers to get to them.

Alaskan winter: The ‘interior area (Fairbanks)’ is famous for its ability to get down past -40F. Brr.

Alaskan summer: watch out for bears, maternally protective/aggressive moose, swarms of mosquitoes.



My flight school has a short course for creating a short-term survival pack – which I took this evening.

We started with many stories of crash impact survivors who subsequently died from lack of survival supplies.

  • Alaskan pilots who lacked proper winter clothing because they didn’t dress to survive the terrain they were flying over (those aircraft heaters are really toasty – it’s tempting to go flying without a parka).
  • Crashes where the pilots died on impact and passengers survived – but then passengers died from a lack of food&water because they didn’t know about the aircraft’s emergency radios and emergency supplies in their pilots’ vests. [Alabama case]
  • Float plane crashes where the plane’s emergency kit sinks with the plane. Uninjured survivors on shore with no supplies.
  • A duo who crashed into a 150ft tree and survived (only 1 person had a broken leg); they got down on the ground safely but forgot their survival gear in the plane. They couldn’t climb up the tree and died. Sad!

In a crash, you may just have to survive with just the clothes on your back. To increase your odds, you can wear a vest/fanny pack with survival gear.

The instructor showed us his personal vest. It was an inflatable life vest with pockets (inflatable vest because he exclusively flies float planes).

A lot of items were expected: knife/mini-saw (which every Alaskan seems to carry around in all occasions), strike-anywhere matches, waterproof matches in waterproof cylinders (include the special striking surface that comes with the original package! They usually won’t catch fire otherwise), swiss army knife (to dismantle plane parts), alcohol pads (prevent infection in the cuts a crash survivor is sure to have), bandaids, asprin, flashlights (batteries kept separate to prevent corrosion!), signaling mirror, compass, granola bars.

Then there were items I thought were truly brilliant: surveyor’s [flagging] tape (neon colored thin plastic you can mark your path with if you leave the crash site), rescue laser with a line filter (makes a red laser line instead of the normal dot), high powered Cyalume glow sticks, homemade altoids-mints-tin sized fishing kit (hooks, line, etc), 9V battery + steel wool (for starting fires), candles (importance described below), [wool] working gloves (stay warm and prevent blisters when building shelter), butane lighter, fresnel lens (for starting fires), Waterproof match case/film canister filled with cotton balls soaked with petroleum jelly (use as tinder), polarized sunglasses (to prevent snow blindness), whistle, wire saw (although many people consider these useless), waterproof-paper notepads (leave notes if you leave the plane/keep a diary/stave off boredom), pencils and pens, mini survival book, prescription medication, mini backup ELT+instructions+extra battery.

These items should be enough for short term survival, a few days – one is expecting rescue in the near future. Personalize your kit by adding or removing items.


Alaskan law (AS 02.35.110. Emergency Rations and Equipment) requires certain longer term survival equipment in small aircraft. It includes mosquito headnets, a week of food for each passenger, first aid kit, knife, axe, and more. Winter regulations include snowshoes, wool blankets, and a sleeping bag. In his larger (longer term) emergency kit, our instructor also includes 33 gallon trash bags (great for carrying water&berries, covering large wounds, acting as a raincoat/mosquito net, shelter, collecting condensation from a tree branch to drink, etc), large roll of duct tape, Dinty Moore instant meals (ex. pot roast, no water needed), water pouches (they won’t burst on impact like a gallon container might. I didn’t know they made these!).


Random tidbits from the class:

The importance of candles: heating snow caves! When building a snow shelter, we were told that one should dig all the way down to the bare earth, beneath leaves and branches. Bare earth is approximately +14F (geothermal heat!), warmer than having a snow floor. Googling only show sites that say to have a snow floor. I’ve not tried a snow shelter so I still don’t know what is best. Candles can warm a snow cave a few degrees, which can make a bit of difference in sub zero temperatures.

Never fly with bear spray in the cockpit. Law enforcement pepper spray is 5% ‘pepper’. Bear sprays are typically ~20%. There are cases of bear spray accidentally going off, incapacitating the pilots, and causing fatal crashes.

Gun: anything smaller than a 45 probably won’t stop a bear.

When a brown bear charges, it may stop about 15 feet short of you since they don’t typically eat humans. Then again, they might kill and leave you. Black bears will eat you. Thanks instructor for that nightmare-inducing warning, humph πŸ˜‰

Winter: don’t seek shelter in the plane. Build an insulated shelter. Pull padding from the seats for insulation.

Signal fire: use tires, plane oil, plane fuel to create thick, black smoke when you see search planes coming towards you/across your field of vision. (this is where the multitool is invaluable)

Not a cold weather secret: batteries die super fast. ELT batteries normally last for a day but one will be lucky to get 4 hours in the cold. Don’t rely on battery powered devices if possible!

After a crash, drink water! [if you have enough]. Adrenaline rush of the incident can dehydrate you and lead to brain impairment. Take a break and inventory all your supplies.

Steps to take are outlined here: http://wilderness-urban-survival.blogspot.com/2011/01/surviving-small-plane-crash.html


I’ve always carried a few personal survival items on my previous flights: knife, granola bars, flashlights, extra Spot GPS batteries, lifestraw (large diameter straw with built in filter), a plastic bag, mylar thermal blanket, a sparkie firestarter (1 handed operation capable, works when wet), lip balm, chemical handΒ  warmers, and spare glasses. I am now going to invest in a fanny pack and strap essential items to my body.

Idea for me: I’m working on a solar powered purse for charging my phone. I should look into building something more powerful for general charging purposes.

**I am not experienced in wilderness activities. The information in this blog should be verified with a professional before its use in any real life situations.**


I really look forward to getting back into flying next month. I haven’t piloted a plane since November – far too long.

Finally found an interesting airspace NOTAM

On all my flights, the NOTAMS I retrieve have mentioned spots of ice on the Fairbanks runways/taxiways, certain airport lights being out, and other items I know are important, but are really mundane. Finally though, I have an exciting NOTAM:

NOTAM - flight restriction over Poker Flat
NOTAM – flight restriction over the University of Alaska’s Poker Flat Rocket Range

This rocket is being launched to take in-situ aurora measurements; in-situ aurora data is a big deal to space physicists because the aurora occurs around 100km (~62mi) above the ground. It’s a region above where we can fly instruments on planes. The atmosphere there is too thick to place a satellite in a [cost-effective, ‘long-term’] orbit. We mostly rely on remote sensing to learn about aurora, but there are limitations on the type of data that can be obtained. The solution: rockets. But they’re so expensive, basically a one-time-use machine, and they only fly for ~10 minutes (remember not all 10 minutes is spent at the right altitude…). And you only get good data when you time the launch properly. Think of aurora as ‘storms’ in the atmosphere. They take time to grow and light up the sky. The rocket takes time to get to the correct altitude, so to observe the aurora at maximum intensity, you need to launch at the early, wispy green glow stages (but in the early stages, there is no guarantee that it will turn into the large event you want). So much stress in the control room!!!

Scientists don’t currently have a guaranteed aurora forecaster (a mildly accurate one is at http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast), but the hope is that with more data, we can someday have very accurate predictive capabilities. More details at http://uafcornerstone.net/rockets-set-launch-poker-flat-research-range/ and www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/nasa-funded-sounding-rocket-to-catch-aurora-in-the-act/

Having friends that work at Poker Flat is awesome. We get to go through the gates to observe the launch up close (~2 miles away).

On the 25th, auroras were mild:

I'm definitely enjoying the warm temperature aurora watching - 20F's! A bit too warm though so the ground is now a sheet of ice...
I’m definitely enjoying warm temperature aurora watching: 20F’s! A bit too warm though so the parking lot is now a large solid sheet of ice…

Auroras were too mild for a launch of the official rocket – but personnel were kept mentally sharp with two smaller test rocket launches. Total flight time is only about 40 seconds. Oddly thrilling hearing the loud ‘thud’ as it lands.

One of two test rocket launches of the night - Poker Flat
One of two test rocket launches of the night – Poker Flat. Courtesy T. Xiao

The highway bordering the rocket range needs to be shut down for ~10 minutes for every launch and I’m curious if anything is said about the launch to pilots in the area.

Even though I’ve finished my required night flight training hours, I kinda of want to schedule a night flight to see how rockets affect air traffic communications/instructions πŸ˜€

Auroral activity has been low so we’re still waiting for the launch as of today.