It's been five months and my right calf is three times the size of my left. My left deltoid muscle could eat my right for brunch and have room left for one of the multitude of free hotel breakfast muffins I have stuffed in my backpack. The day is done, the mission won and it's time to head back to base to do the real job: Filling out paperwork, FedExing SSDs and choosing the appropriate evening beer. But I'm not ready to work. I want to fly.
"Hey Ben you up?"
"You want to do a little formation flying?"
"Uhhhhh... I've never done that."
"Don't worry, I've done it three times now. Just keep on the way you are and I'll intercept you. Say groundspeed?"
"Uh... OK. 68 knots. You sure?"
"Yeah, you'll be lead so all you have to do is announce your turns and altitude changes and do not turn right suddenly."
Ben wasn't kidding. Foreflight tells me he really is doing 68 over the ground to my 98. Now you understand the title of this article isn't just a cute creative choice. We fly slow. The client likes clear pictures, our boss bills by the hour and we're in it for the hobbs time after all. Ben is a master at this. He flies the lines all day at a 15 degree nose up pitch. Doing this while the coffee required to be pert and alert at 0500 complains against your seatbelt is an incredible discipline.
Ben's plane hovers into view, a tiny white speck with a flashing green pinprick. Slowly it gets bigger and becomes an airplane. I maneuver to swim up behind, below and slightly to the right. I key up our company frequency again.
"Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh ladies and gentlemen of Benjamin airlines if you look out your rear window you'll see company traffic wagging its wings to say hello. We don't have any inflight movie so this is the entertainment you get. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight back to Little Rock, Arkanasas, home of absolutely nothing."
"And if you look out your left window you'll see a middle finger extended," is Ben's reply. And then an airdrop of a dozen photos of my own plane from Ben's perspective. Damn I love that kid.
What a hell of a ride it's been the last several months for me, for my team and for the Jersey Aero Club. As for me I've mowed the sky like stadium grass over desert, mountain, marsh, plains, prairie, city and who knows what else. From home base in Lousiana I went to Valdosta, Georgia and got some great footage of A-10s, my favorite modern plane, doing strafing runs and landing not 100 feet from me. Even got to sit in one. No, seriously, look:
Holy crap! Those fools let him into an A-10!
From there it was Kissimmee to fly missions over Tampa (Did you know the Kissimmee tower radar readout has mickey mouse in silhouette to show where Disney is located?) then back to GA, Ohio (where it snows UP), West Virginia, back to Louisiana, Texas, Texas again, Texas some more (by the way, Texas is big), through the Rockies and Sierra Madres to SoCal and now here I sit in Arkansas writing this article as the oldest continuously operating flying club in the nation enters into a beautiful era of peace, friendship, fun and most importantly turning good people into great pilots. Damn what a blessing this year has been so far.
I've learned a hell of a lot in the last five months. And even the places I hated, I loved. Chino Hills, California might smell like cow pee all the time and the linemen might look like they just blew in from a beach barbecue but that's where I got this video:
Mute it, and wait for the end...
It's also where I learned exactly how to predict when I'd get hit by mountain waves.
So, you might be wondering, what's the day-to-day of a survey pilot like. Let me break it down for you. I look at the TAF and see what the weather guessers have to say for the next day. Then I say goodnight to Alison over facetime go to sleep and get up at 0500 or 0600 depending on the sun angle and look at the weather again to see how wrong they were. If there's no precipitation and the clouds are reported 500' above the shoot altitude it's a go. If not, it's a maybe and we still head to the airport and get ready to rock.
We plan to be on the line at 15 minutes before the official sun angle and press play to let the computer know to operate the cameras. So we preflight, plan our commute time, get in, boot up, get up, get on the line and fly a pattern that no joke looks like mowing the lawn until we have an hour of fuel left then land at the closest air port, refuel, get back up and do it some more. Ferry home, write reports, ship hard drives, squawk squawks and do it all again. Sometimes we work for weeks on end. Sometimes we're down for a week or more. Our team will be two to five planes, and the project manager (that's me, right now) organizes who flies where, hotels, cars, talking to TRACON and updating home base on every little thing.
It's a lot of work, but when you've got a smooth day and there's not too much radio chatter it's the easiest flying you can do. Key up the Spotify, relax, tap the fuzzy dice and shoot the shit over comms. My favorite thing to listen to is sea shanties. Strange, I know, but they really do make the day go faster. And when those easy days get boring you get slapped with turbulence that makes it nice and challenging to stay in that 100' tube with wings level. Or the winds shift in that 7 hours you're up there and now you're landing with a 90 degree xw component or you're not landing at home base.
So about that title: We have a maximum crab angle the cameras will accept when they shoot a snapshot below and it's not much. Imagine if your Google or Apple Maps' images were puzzle pieces and some were off kilter. We don't have much bank, pitch or crab that we're allowed but it is crab that's the most strict. Flying slow and keeping the nose straight means I can pretty much keep my left heel under the seat until my right leg gets tired then I use my left foot on the right rudder and give it a rest. Display says I'm off 10 feet? Press the rudder or relax it. This entire time the ball on my slip-skid indicator will be at least half deflected. All. Day. Center the ball and you're nearly guaranteed to lose the line.
Like your airplane quiet and warm? Find another job. We have 3 foot holes punched in ours for the cameras to gaze out of. Like a nice, sedate, fore center of gravity? Cool. We've got an exhaust redirection system that runs the length of the fuselage.
I've been asked what that pipe is for more times than I can count now. My standard answers are: It makes it go faster. It launches flares. Oh shit, what happened to my exhaust!? and I'd like to tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. In truth it redirects heat shimmer away from the underbelly cameras. Cameras I inspect and clean daily.
I guess the biggest hardship is just not knowing when you'll be told to pack up and move. I throw away a lot of groceries.
Much of what I've just written is likely not too surprising, but here's what might be: Mapping is a big industry and there are players at all levels. My level right now is, clearly, entry. It's a stepping stone job for almost everyone in it. At the next level, flying Grand Caravans, the pay more than doubles and the hotel budget becomes "whatever you want." Next level after that? 310s, Navajos, 400 - 800 a day with per diem. King Airs, sometimes jets, exotic locations and absurd pay at a job that requires a security clearance follow after that along with the privilege of not being able to tell anyone what you do.
I tell everyone this because there are far too many people who will tell you - or perhaps you tell yourself - that you simply have to become a CFI to get your career building hours. It's just not so. There are options. There are jobs where you can get real world experience that - with great respect to all the wonderful pilots who make pilots - you just do not get beating up the pattern sitting next to someone who can't change frequencies and maintain a bank angle at the same time. You learn to deal with the unpredictable, to talk to the very different ATCs of the nation, how to navigate several brand-new-to-you airports every day and monitor weather changes while flying your mission. And you get to do it with a team of adventurous, ambitious aeronauts who (if you're lucky) you learn to love.
Several things hit me in the face while flying my job. Usually on descent back to base I am overwhelmed by an immense feeling of gratitude at doing this job and all the great people it's introduced me to. Another, and this usually in cruise, is that now I'm ready to instruct. I've got real world lessons to pass on to my future students. I always feel this way after ATC asks me to relay to a NORDO aircraft. You really get to know controllers when you're crisscrossing in front of their arrival corridor all day. You build rapport, learn each others' peculiarities. You learn how to communicate with different facilities and how to tell them "Yup, that's company traffic, we have comms and can maintain our own separation," and so on. It's something I look forward to helping student pilots with.
Another thing I learned is how to organize a wing of pilots and aircraft for photo missions, long ferries, celebratory dinners and to manage disagreements over procedure and weather. It's the most nuanced part of the job and I highly recommend pursuing an early job away from your local airport just for that reason.
As the old saying goes, "A ship at port is safe. But that's not what ships are for."
Soon I will be that safe ship at port once more, that port being N12 and the JAC. I look forward to seeing all of you. And when I do I will be thinking about nothing but being up and away again. It's not personal. Wings are meant to fly.