Without a doubt, 2015 has been the best year yet. If nothing else exciting happened, getting engaged to Ashley would have made it the best year of my life. However, quite a bit more happened – most notably getting to travel the world!
As my loyal readers can attest, I have been a slacker when it comes to blogging this year. I hope this explains some of my absence. I have been a bit busy traveling the world, and though I hate to admit it, traveling is extremely tiring and garnering motivation to blog after a long day of travel is harder than I thought it would be!
Below is my attempt to recap the year that was 2015. My 2016 New Year’s resolution is to blog some high quality photos and recounts from these trips. (Photos below)
Countries visited — 16
States visited — 42 (and I completed the goal of visiting all 50 states by age 26!)
Nights in hotels — 285
Airline miles traveled — 230,000 (enough to circle the globe 9.2 times!)
Full circumnavigation of the globe — 1
Hours in the cockpit I piloted various planes — 610
Year-to-date rental car rentals — 73 in 9 countries
Rental car wrecks — 3
Languages I had to learn to say “Hello” in — 8
Temperature variation — 106ᵒF (The Maldives) to -23ᵒF (Goose Bay, Canada)
Photos from 2015
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October 17, 2015 was a special day for Ashley and me. A day I will remember for the rest of time. I asked one of the most important, if not the most important, question of my life on that Saturday morning. I asked Ashley to be my wife.
Below are each of our accounts of the special day and days leading up. Photos from the special day and weekend are at the bottom.
Mark’s side of the story:
Where do I begin? Six and a half years of history is enough to fill a textbook! We met in Statistics class at TCU the spring semester of 2009. The first day of class, I typically like to sit in the front row, or near it, to set a good precedent. This particular day I was a touch late and the front row was already full. I spent a few seconds seeing what the next best option would be. I had two choices, there was a seat on the left side of the room in the second row behind a cute girl (Ashley) or a seat on the right side of the room behind another pretty girl (it’s TCU after all… It is hard not to sit next to a pretty girl!). For whatever reason, I picked the left seat. Looking back, this is one of those times it seems like something bigger was at work. I am not sure what, I will let each reader decide for themselves, but I truly believe something bigger steered me left that day. As it were, it set up a friendship that would eventually turn into a relationship, which will now turn into marriage and a happy “forever” together.
I, honestly, do not remember much more about that first day of class. The one thing I do remember is, when the professor walked by to hand out the syllabus, I stopped him and spoke to him about missing a few days due to some ski trips. We went on to chat for a minute about my pre-college skiing career. We then moved on and class concluded.
The second day of class, a Thursday at 11, I made sure to get there in plenty of time. This time, I made sure to sit in the front row, in the seat just to the right of this pretty girl. We introduced ourselves and a friendship was born.
Cut to; 2015.
Ashley and I have been “officially” together for the better part of 6 years. At this point, I have known for the majority of those years that this is the girl I am going to spend the rest of my life with. I will not bore the audience with why it “took me so long” but just know that it was not time wasted. Every minute of that time was spent making sure my mind was right. I do not take marriage or its commitment lightly. For me, asking Ashley to be my wife is the same commitment as saying “I do.” I knew Ashley was the right woman the moment we began dating, but I needed to make sure I was the man she deserved. I needed to be 100% certain I could fulfill my duties as a loving, caring, committed, and faithful husband. She deserves the best man this world has to offer, and all that time was spent making sure I could fulfill that job. I am not the best I can be, but my commitment to her is to, work each day from now until forever, at becoming the best person possible, the man she deserves.
Around June/July of this year, I knew I wanted to ask her to marry me, but I just was not sure how I wanted to ask. I knew Ashley would be happy with anything but I wanted it to be special. It needed to be a gesture of love that was as big as the love she has showed me over the years.
I knew before I could worry about asking her, I needed to purchase the, all important, ring. Luckily, this was not as hard as it could have been because over all the years, Ashley and I have talked a lot about what she does and does not like. Most of our friends have already been engaged, which helped, because each time a new engagement would pop up on Facebook, she would be sure to let me know her thoughts on the ring. Needless to say, I had a good idea of what she wanted!
Now came the part of actually purchasing the ring… Maybe for some people this is easy, but not for me, at least not at first. My first question was, “what will it cost?” I realized I was extremely ignorant in the gemstone market. I had no idea what the market price/caret rate was. About all I knew was, the price of gold, and the only reason I knew that was from reading the Wall Street Journal every morning! I decided to use my ignorance and spin it in a positive. Since I had no idea how much this ring would cost me, I decided to set a budget. This way, it would be completely unbiased and unemotional. My only budgetary condition was I wanted to pay cash for the ring. I will not bore anyone with a finance lecture, but going into debt at the beginning of a marriage to purchase a ring is not a smart decision. Budget set, now I needed to figure out what that would buy me!
As most know, I like to be as knowledgeable about a subject as possible before making large purchases. Call me boring, but that is just how I am. I will spend endless hours researching, becoming an expert (or so I think!) on whatever I am buying. I started with diamonds, and then I moved into ring metallurgy, then into jewelry stores and certified gemologists. After about a month of researching, I stepped back and realized that, the Internet is full of crap information, everyone is supposedly an expert in diamonds, and there are more damn choices in this whole process then a buffet at Golden Corral. Moreover, at the end of the day, I was no closer to actually buying Ashley a ring.
I needed a new plan of attack.
I asked a close, trustworthy friend, who buys a lot of jewelry, for some advice. He recommended a jewelry store in Spokane and gave me a referral to see the owner of the store.
After returning home from a trip to Brazil, I stopped by the store, spoke to the owner, whom I had been told to go see, and within two hours the ring was designed, the stone was picked, we had it appraised by a third party certified gemologist, it was insured, and paid for.
Now I had the ring… It was time to figure out how I was going to propose.
I have to be honest; this was the hardest part of the entire proposal process.
The proposal is all about the woman – so I had to remove myself and my comfort zone from the equation. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do it right. It needed to be a moment she would remember forever, but it also needed to be intimate.
It took a month or two to really figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I put a number of lists together with different things that meant something to her, to us, or that played a big part in our relationship.
The one constant that kept popping up was the mountains, skiing, and specifically Telluride. Telluride is where we spent some of our first dates together. It is where we have gone for vacations over the years. We have numerous friends in the area. More importantly, it is where I remember falling in love with Ashley for the first time. Telluride is a special place in our hearts.
Not to mention, Ashley’s favorite thing in the world (besides Diet Coke and French fries) is the bakery, Telluride Truffle. Telluride Truffles makes some of the most decadent chocolates in the world. For Ashley, they are heaven.
Therefore, the plan started to come together. I had an idea “how” I was going to do it, but I had no idea “when.” Ash and I do not even live in the same state, how were we going to find a time to take a vacation? Moreover, even if we did, it would be so out of the ordinary that it would give it away. I had to figure out a way to include this in a work trip.
Then it dawned on me; I was going to be in Scottsdale, AZ for an Airshow over her birthday weekend. And the weekend prior to that, I would be in Palm Springs. Why don’t we just take a quick detour to Telluride between the two Airshows?
That is exactly how it worked out. Better yet, I was able to use the excuse it was her “birthday getaway.” I had convinced her that nothing fishy was going on, we were just going to spend a long weekend in Telluride for her birthday. (I owed her a good birthday this year after what happened on her birthday last year).
Oct. 15 – Ashley and I met in Palm Springs. We drove to Arizona that evening (as I had to drop off a few items for next week’s Air Expo).
Oct. 16 – We woke up early in Tempe and began our drive to Telluride. The weather could not have been better. Arizona and Southwest Colorado in October is unbelievably beautiful. The entire drive I was nervous and anxious – but I was trying to act as “normal” as possible.
We arrived in Telluride that afternoon and Ashley’s first surprise happened – typically, we crash with one of our friends in the area. HOWEVER, seeing this was such a special occasion, I went ahead and got us a beautiful condominium up on the hill with great views and an awesome hot tub. Remember, this was for her “birthday” so I used the excuse that it was all for her birthday weekend. I have to admit, the condominium was nicer then I was expecting!
Once we arrived, it had been a long day in the car and we were up early, so I suggested Ashley take a little nap before we headed out to dinner. Ashley is never one to turn down a nap! This also gave me an opportunity to finish all the loose ends for the big day tomorrow. Eric, a close friend, had also been helping me out with some planning, so I stopped by his house and he helped me finish the items for our picnic.
After finishing with Eric, I took a drive around to scout out some nice hiking/picnic locations for the next evening. I had found a few spots, but as I was scouting locations, some clouds started to roll in. I got out my phone and looked at the weather and lo and behold, it was supposed to rain all weekend! Oh no!
“What am I going to do if it rains? The whole idea was to have this outside and enjoy the beauty that is Telluride!”
I had to stop and collect myself. All this planning and preparation, a little rain was not going to stop us. I quickly began brainstorming other plans. I had a plan B, C, and D worked out within minutes. I assured myself, what was meant to be, was meant to be. Rain, snow, clouds, or sunshine, tomorrow was going to be a glorious, unforgettable day with my best friend.
It was starting to get close to dinnertime and I knew Ashley would be calling soon. I did not want her to get suspicious, so on the way back to the condo, I picked up Eric, and the three of us went to dinner in Mountain Village. We finished the evening with a fantastic meal and wonderful company. Thankfully, Eric and I were able to finish the evening without giving anything away.
Once back at the condominium after dinner, I started to look at the weather. My plan for a sunset hike the following day was not looking good. It was calling for thick clouds and rain. I did not want to chance not having nice, outdoor weather. It was time to implement plan B.
My plan B was a sunrise hike. BUT, Ashley is not a morning person. In addition, the sunrise was at 7:34am. Meaning we would need to begin our trek at 6:30, therefore we would need to leave the condominium at 5:45. Yikes! How was I going to convince her to get up that early on vacation? Better yet, we needed to be dressed halfway decent for the photos. (I knew she would want good photos so our attire mattered for this surprise hike).
As coincidence would have it, that little nap Ashley took prior to dinner was now very important. Somehow, I put the words together to convince her that a sunrise hike would be a great idea. Maybe she had some inkling at this point… But, I like to think she was still completely in the dark as to what was actually going to happen the following day.
As usual, Ashley fell asleep right away and I stayed awake all night long. I could not sleep one bit. I was anxious, nervous, excited, happy, stressed… You name it.
All sorts of thoughts and scenarios were running through my head as I lay in bed.
“What if the weather was bad?”
“What if she doesn’t want to wake up?”
“What if, what if, what if…”
During all of this thinking, Ashley readjusted and made a cute sigh as she relaxed into her new sleeping position. It caught my attention. I looked to my left and she had moved into the amber glow of light reflecting in through a small crevasse in the blinds.
The next moment was one I will never forget. All the “what ifs” had stopped. My mind fell silent. It was in this, palpably clear moment, I saw my future wife, laying in complete calm. A wave of complete awe filled my soul. Could this be real life? Here I was laying next to my soul mate, my best friend, the most beautiful lady I have ever known. “I am going to ask this woman to be my wife in a few hours.” Those words, which had been filled with so much emotion, became abundantly clear. In that moment, those words turned into pure joy. In those few seconds, a peace came over me, and I knew, with 100% certainty, Ashley Susan Atkinson was the one. The one I would soon be committed to spending the rest of my life with. And with that, I reached over and held Ashley’s hand. I closed my eyes and fell fast asleep.
Seemingly, minutes later, “beep, beep, beep.”
It was time to get this day; she had been waiting so patiently for, started.
We slowly rolled out of bed. I quickly made last minute preparations for our morning stroll while Ashley got ready.
Amazingly, we were out the door on time, and on our way to the trailhead. Upon arriving, I gathered all the “stuff.” And we hiked a little ways to a good spot with beautiful views in every direction.
We set up our blanket, and Ashley got comfortable while I set up the cameras. The cameras may have been a giveaway for most folks, but in all of our travels, I would always set up the tripod and take photos of the two of us in beautiful places. Therefore, to Ashley, this was just another fun photoshoot in beautiful Telluride. As to make sure I got the shot, I set up one camera on time-lapse mode to take a photo every 3 seconds. I also set up two GoPro’s running video; to be sure, I got a good shot from multiple angles.
Once the cameras were all set up, I joined Ashley in the picnic blanket and we sat a few minutes and just enjoyed the sun coming up over the mountains of Telluride. The weather was perfect. A few puffer clouds in the sky, giving good texture to the landscape, and a perfectly placed sunrise directly over Ajax peak at the end of town. Each passing minute the sky and clouds filled with brighter hues of soft pink, yellow, orange, and purples. The snow-covered peaks began to glow. The autumn colors turned to fire. Next to me was an angel. She was softly smiling, looking into my eyes, and I knew it was time.
The play the entire trip had been this was all for Ashley’s birthday. A “birthday getaway.” This meant I needed to give her birthday presents. Therefore, to entice her to want to do a sunrise hike, I told her we would have a nice little picnic & I would give her her birthday gifts during our picnic.
After enjoying the sunrise, I asked if she was ready for her gifts. “Yes!” she said with excitement.
Prior, I had packed all her gifts in a nice leather bag, with the ring on the very bottom.
I gave her her first gift, a Penddleton inspired southwest blanket. She loved it.
Her second gift was a flannel shirt with corduroy elbow patches from a company she liked. Again, she loved it and was quite surprised.
After the second gift, I waited a few minutes and asked her if she liked what she had gotten thus far. She said she loved them. Since it was a brisk morning, the blanket I had just given her, was immediately used. I told her to stand up, and hold up the whole blanket to see its patterns and colors. After she stood up, I wrapped it around her shoulders and we gazed off into the sunrise.
A few minutes later I said, “I have one last surprise for you.”
Last, and for dessert, I had gotten her a box of Telluride Truffles (this would have made a little more sense if we were doing a sunset picnic – as chocolates isn’t everyone’s ideal breakfast dessert). However, Ashley’s favorite thing in the whole world is Telluride Truffles. And she has told me on multiple occasions there is never a wrong time to eat chocolate, especially Telluride Truffles!
Therefore, this “one last surprise” was her favorite chocolates. I took the box out of the bag, and said, “I know how much you love these, so I got you some Telluride Truffles for dessert.”
Smiling from ear to ear, she slowly opened the box, seemingly excited to try one of these decadent chocolates.
As she untied the ribbon and opened the box, she noticed under the truffles was something else. When she looked up to inquire what else was in the truffle box, I was on one knee.
Under the truffles, I had hidden the purple ring box.
I took the ring box, opened it, and asked her, “Ashley Susan, will you marry me?”
Through her steady stream of tears, she said, “YES!”
I got up, and hugged her as tight as I ever had, smiling from ear to ear. She placed her head on my shoulder, as she was crying and laughing. Here we were, in our version of Eden, Telluride; holding one another, just as the sun broke the horizon, beams of light coming down from above. Loved filled the valley. This moment was perfect.
The rest of the day was equally as perfect. We spent the rest of the morning up on the hill. Enjoying the scenery, taking photos, and being carefree.
Later we enjoyed a great meal in town and began calling friends and family. The day was, truly, perfect.
October 17, 2015.
Ashley’s side of the Story
Statically speaking, my one in a million relationship, was a match made in heaven!
My “love at first sight” story was more along the lines of “love at first introduction”. This is my story on how I found my forever, best friend.
January of 2009, in my first class of the semester, Statistics, I promptly found a seat in the front row. I wanted to start the semester off on the right foot; establishing a routine of arriving early and taking detailed notes every class (at least, I kept up with the detailed notes part J). Before class began, my professor was visiting with his new pupils, attaching new names with new faces. As we all waited for 10:00AM to roll around, I overheard a conversation between my professor and the students directly behind me.
Several ladies introduced themselves to the professor. Then, a young man stated his name and recounted details from an email he had sent to the professor addressing future absences throughout the semester. What I gathered was this young guy was a training, ski professional. Now, this was quite puzzling to our professor, who was trying to process why a young collegiate male, a training, winter sport, professional athlete, would be sitting in his classroom, in the middle of Fort Worth, Texas. The response he received may have surprised my professor, but it definitely left a lasting impression on me.
When questioned with, “If that’s so, then, what are you doing here?” The young male chuckled and stated that he would not be able to ski professionally forever, and an education was very important to him. An education would not only enable him to support himself, but also to provide for his wife and family, someday. Well, if that doesn’t just knock you over silly, to hear that a 20 year old male has enough fore thought to invest not only in himself, but also in his FUTURE FAMILY! I distinctly remember thinking “WOW, that guy’s future wife will be one lucky lady!”
It was the next class that I would officially meet this young guy, when he sat next to me in the front row. He introduced himself as Mark Brown. This was only the beginning of our fruitful story. The start of what would be our six and a half year journey to forever! During this time, we earned our Business Degrees from TCU, we rekindled our passions and aspirations in aviation, we shared adventures, both near and far, but most importantly, we built a lasting friendship.
As life has proven over the last year, Mark Brown, MB, and I could be called to “work” anywhere in the world, within a moment’s notice. Thankfully, I’ve had the flexibility to set, or adjust, my schedule allowing me to take time to travel to location, or co-pilot with MB, to share in this “new normal” life apart/together. We often pinch ourselves, asking each other, “How did we get here?!” The start of this “early birthday” trip was no exception to the crazy tale.
My overly calm, “everything will work out” MB never got upset with the changing, or lack of, schedule. He just knew things would fall into place and all would be well! I could tell this was a special trip for him and he wasn’t going to let anything get him down! MB had REALLY been prepping for my “early birthday” trip to Colorado. This included sending me a detailed packing list (for the perfect engagement photography session outfit). Once we eventually made it to the same location, we were off to the Rockies!
In Telluride, with a beautiful drive through the mountains complete, we settled into our fabulous condo. That night we shared a delicious dinner with Mark’s dear friend Eric, catching up on recent events and enjoying being back in our favorite little ski town. MB wanted to capture the last of the autumn colors in the Aspen trees against the rocky reds of the box canyon with a sunrise photoshoot. I knew we’d end up being a part of these sunrise photos, so I got up at 5:00AM to fix those curls! By 6:30, we were out the door, all bundled up, with a bag of “goodies”, one nice camera, and two GoPros.
MB loves photography. He runs around to capture the perfect angle, the perfect light, the perfect shot. That morning this was on full display! Mark had brought a southwestern blanket with him from Idaho for us to sit on while we enjoyed the sunrise. While I waited, and watched him run around, I just smirked and took countless iPhone photos to document the “behind the scenes” of this sunrise event. Once he got all the cameras set, he finally joined me to watch the sunrise.
When he couldn’t wait any more, he started taking my birthday gifts out of my Italian leather weekend bag. First, he gifted me a beautiful white/gray flannel from a great store in Oregon. Next, he gave me the softest Navajo blanket from a company that donations a blanket for every blanket purchased. Finally, MB hands me a white box with a gold bow. Inside the box, I found my FAVORITE chocolates in all the world, Telluride Truffles!
By this point, Mark is jumping up and down with excitement and nerves. He just about yelled, “THERE IS MORE IN THE BOX, UNDER THE CHOCOLATES!” Oh yes, there was more under the chocolates! There was a purple ring box under the chocolates. He took, opened the box and dropped to one knee all in one swoop. Not wasting another second, he asked “Will you marry me?” With a massive grin and misty eyes, I SAID YES! I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mark so happy, or relieved! After months of preparation and planning, Mr. MB had pulled off the perfect surprise on a perfect day in Telluride!
Grand Canyon Photos
In March, I had the unique opportunity to Ferry a plane from eastern Washington State to Dusseldorf, Germany. Two other pilots, whom I was instructing in the airplane, accompanied me for the journey. Luckily we were in an airplane was big enough to walk around the cabin, allowing the pilots to switch mid-flight so we were all able to get adequate amounts of rest. Seeing this was a work related trip, I only allowed myself to take photos when away from the flight controls (i.e. sitting in the back).
A journey this long and complex comes with its fair share of complications; like hitting marginal weather 300 nautical miles away from the closest land mass or getting stuck in Fargo, ND for 18 hours due to issues beyond our control (one of the other two pilots was not a U.S. Citizen). However, based on stories I have heard, our crossing was relatively smooth.
The scenery on the entire trip was spectacular. Flying over Greenland at 10,000 ft. is something everyone should experience. It is impossible to fathom so much ice unless one sees it firsthand. Iceland was one of the most unique places I have ever been, and the people were all very welcoming (more in-depth post on Iceland coming next). In addition, Goose Bay, Canada was one of the coldest places I have ever been. When we landed at 9am it was -19F and gusting winds of 20 knots. The Canadians have quite a sense of humor; at the FBO, a welcoming young lady and a bucket of ICE CREAM SANDWICHES greeted us as we walked in from the cold!
The biggest learning experience for me was learning how to navigate the oceanic routes, perform the correct position reports, and reading the weather charts for the North Atlantic. Understanding the European controllers also proved to be quite challenging.
After reaching Germany, I was able to reflect on the trip, and I have to admit, the biggest surprise during the entire trip was how uneasy I was during the ocean crossings. Ashley and I have flown small airplanes all across the U.S.A. in all types of weather and I have never been nervous or uneasy in the pilot’s seat. However, for some reason, crossing 800+ nm of open, near freezing, ocean in a single engine airplane made me a little nervous. Even knowing the statistics of turbine engine reliability, my brain was still running through the scenarios if anything were to happen to our engine. It was not debilitating by any means, just annoying. One part of my brain knew everything would be just fine, but there was that small, pessimistic, voice in the back of my mind that just would not go away. The nice thing was, once we made it safely to Europe, the journey meant much more to me because I ended up concurring a fear I did not even know I had.
I suppose the old saying holds true: “At the end of a worthwhile adventure you will have questions, which at the beginning you didn’t even think to ask.”
Spokane, WA –> Fargo, ND –> Scranton, Penn. –> Goose Bay, Canada –> Narsarsauq, Greenland –> Keflavik, Iceland –> Glasgow, Scotland –> Dusseldorf, Germany
Over Valentine’s Day weekend, Ashley and I took a quick “get-away” to Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula.
As you can tell, I am running behind on my blog posts so I am going to leave this one short and let the photos do the talking.
Our first night in Seattle, we went to the Ben Howard concert at The Moore Theater. For those unfamiliar with Ben Howard, I highly recommend looking him up. He has some great singer-songwriter tunes. The next day we spend exploring the greater Seattle area and spent a few hours at the Museum of Flight on Boeing Field. Later that evening we stopped by Snoqualmie Falls. Right by Snoqualmie is a famous hotel with an excellent café and spa. What a fun evening.
The next few days were spent exploring the Olympic Peninsula and Olympic National Park. The first part of the trip we spent exploring and hiking Hurricane Ridge Rd. This road takes explorers to the top of Hurricane Ridge and offers some stunning views and hiking. That evening we ventured further west to Lake Crescent and hiked to Marymere Falls. We ended that day in La Push on the far west coast of Washington to watch the gorgeous Pacific sunset.
That evening we stayed in the town of Forks, Washington. Little did Ashley and I know that a very popular teen book series is based in Forks, WA. Apparently, the “twilight” series of books is based in this town, making a seemingly small out of the way town a major tourist attraction. The proved difficult when we tried to find a motel to spend the night in. We ended up staying in a sketchy hotel in their “Bella Suite.” There was a shrine to the twilight characters, velvet beds, and many more odd, yet hilarious, quirks in the room. Perfect for Valentine’s Day yeah?! With Ashley and me, it is always an adventure!
The following morning we drove south to the Hoh Rainforest. Olympic National Park is situated in a temperate rain forest, making it a unique ecosystem. After a hike through the rain forest, it was time to head back to North Idaho. It was a relaxing, adventurous, and romantic weekend getaway with my girl.
A few weeks back, I had the fantastic opportunity to fly to Seattle for work to do some demo’s and sales calls.
The flight out there, was a bit burly due to a low cloud deck and some potential for icing. However, I was with my good friend Kelly, who is one of the best pilots I know, so I knew between the two of us, things would go alright. For the most part, I’ll let the pictures do the talking since there were parts of this trip that I just cannot describe with my limited vocabulary.
Quickly, I’ll share two of my highlights from the trip. First, getting to land the floatplane on Lake Union, then taking off to the south, flying directly between downtown Seattle and the space needle, then the landing to the south at Boeing Field, with beautiful Mount Rainier staring us in the face on final approach was certainly a highlight. People pay hundreds of dollars for a flight like this, and I am getting paid to do it! It was a pinch myself kind of moment.
Second, and by far the coolest moment of the trip, was getting to sit right seat in a deHavilland Beaver DHC – 2, and learn a little bit about how to fly it. Then we landed it on Portage Bay, taxied under the highway 5 bridge, then took off from Lake Union to the south toward downtown Seattle. This moment was one of those, “I’ll never forget this moments.”
The rest of the week there was spent with good friends, new friends, great coworkers, and a whole heck of a lot of really neat airplanes! Enjoy.
A New Year is upon us. The mystery of the future is bewildering, but nothing shall deter my goal of achieving greatness.
December finished with all that is important in my life, friends, family, and flying. After saying my goodbyes, I headed back to Idaho with Ashley in tow. Once back home, we decided the New Year called for a weekend getaway. As Sarah Palin might say, “I can see Canada from my porch!” so, we decided to make the 5 hour drive to Banff for the weekend.
Banff has a lot of history for my family and me. It is where my parents met 30+ years ago. More importantly, it is the place I was first introduced to skiing at the ripe age of two. Little did anyone know, skis would shape a good portion of my life decisions the next 26 years.
Driving from Idaho to Banff is gorgeous. A little over halfway to Banff, the town of Radium Hot Springs comes into view. This town marks the beginning of Kootenay National Park. The remainder of the drive to Banff is all national park land. It is truly breathtaking. Obviously, the photos below do not do the beauty justice.
The first night in town, we hung around downtown Banff, checking out the local scene and testing various Canadian beers at brew pubs. The vibe in Banff is much different from what I’m used to in Telluride. It is quite touristy, and seems less authentic. Overseas foreigners well outnumber the local Canadians and Americans. This seems to drive a lot of the town’s shops and restaurants to cater to these folks instead of staying true to their heritage. It was not all bad; we found a great spot just off the main drag that had excellent beer and great flatbread.
Day 2 Ashley and I woke up early and drove up to Lake Louise. LL is about an hour northwest of Banff proper. The drive is simply stunning. Banff National Park is cerntered around the town of Banff so for hundreds of kilometers in every direction is national park land. It is clear why too. The Canadian rockies are too beautiful to put into words. They are one of those sights that just has to be seen.
Lake Louise, and the entire northern Rockies, have had a bad 2015 snow season. Lake Louises was hurting for snow, but even a bad day at Lake Louise is better than the best day anywhere else. Ash and I shredded the entire morning together. Unfortunately, our trip also coincided with a massive Alberta clipper that froze the western plains. The average temperature this day was -15F. I cannot remember the last time I had been THAT cold skiing. I had five layers on and I was still frozen to the core. I even had to ask Ashley to use her hand warmers, which for me is extremely unusual.
After lunch, I went off and skied the fun stuff while Ash warmed up in the lodge. By the afternoon, the weather had moved in so much that there were only a few feet of visibility. This was unfortunate since the view from the top of Lake Louise is another spectacular one. To cap off the day, I did a few nonstop downhill runs on the FIS downhill course.
That evening, Ashley and I went to the Chateau Lake Louise for Après Ski. We enjoyed warm soup and hot coffee as we sat and enjoyed one another’s company. The Chateau sits right on the actual Lake Louise of Lake Louise. In the winter, they turn a portion of the lake into an ice-skating rink, hockey rink, and ice castle. We quickly ran outside, got a few photos, and then ran back into the warmth. Two minutes with my gloves off for photos actually caused a small portion of frostbite to form on my finger. Yikes!
In order to warm back up, we went on a self-guided tour of the hotel. The Chateau is elegant to a “T.” Every detail as meticulous as the next. I liken it to the Plaza in New York City. It exudes grace.
For dinner that evening, we drove back to Banff and went to the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. Words cannot do this hotel justice. It looks like it is straight from medieval Transylvania. It is a proper North American castle. The outside is beautiful, but the medieval castle motif really begins after stepping through the doors and seeing the exceedingly classy lobby, and confusing corridors. It is a wonderland. A child’s dream. I could not help but smile like a giddy five year old. The Banff Springs is the type of castle we all imagine during bedtime stories as a kid. And this one is real, it is really real!
After our self-guided tour, we worked up an appetite. From the beginning of our trip, one thing I knew I wanted to do was eat at the Rundle Lounge in the Banff Springs Hotel. The Rundle Lounge is where my parents met 30+ years ago during a ski trip they had taken with their respective friends. I will not go into the poignant details of their first encounter, but it was rather eerie stepping in that place knowing that; had the events not lined up perfectly, my sister nor I would be here today. Amazing how life works sometimes…
We enjoyed a decadent meal and a few drinks as we made friends with our kind Canadian waitress. There is a friendliness that all Canadians have that is almost intangible. It is simply their “Candianish” attitude toward others. It is warm, heart-felt, and genuine.
Late into the evening, we slowly made the journey back through the maze of corridors and sculptures on our way back to the car. Along the way, I stopped to play a few melodies on a piano that was yearning to hear its beautiful tone once more. Melodious chords of winter echoed the halls. I looked up from my perch, ears warm with soft tones, and saw Ashley glowing in a vale of light, standing tall in a castle of yore, and there I knew once more; I am the luckiest man in the world.
Clear skies, dry air, and a sunrise only the Canadian Rockies could offer, greeted us on our final day. I turned to Ashley, looked deep in her eyes, she looked deep in mine, without saying a word, we grinned, turned back towards the sunrise, she leaned on me and I put my arm around her, and we knew, 2015 just welcomed us with open arms.
After an exciting December thus far, I thought I’d make it even more adventurous with an unpressurized flight at 25,000 ft. Prior to going back to Texas for Christmas, I had to deliver an airplane to Wichita, Kansas. Unfortunately, I did not have a large weather window to work with so I was forced to fly in some non-ideal weather. This particular airplane was not equipped with deice equipment like the plane in my last post. That meant that I either had to find some blue sky, or stay grounded until blue sky came around (because clouds in north Idaho in December = ice). I got home from Seattle on Saturday Dec. 20 at 11 pm and the forecast for the next 4 days (until Christmas) was for crummy weather. Luckily, I woke up at 6am the next morning and I saw a few breaks in the clouds. I knew I probably would not have any more opportunities so I rushed to the airport, did my checks on the plane, checked the weather, and took off around 8am.
The nice weather did not last long. In my weather briefing, I was told there were pilot reports of severe turbulence, mountain waves, and high cloud tops beginning just east of the Montana boarder. I knew I was in for a bumpy ride. I did not quite realize just how “on the edge” I was going to be. The pilot reports the cloud tops were around 20,000 ft., giving me 5,000 ft to work with. (Per FAA regulations, unpressurized airplanes are only allowed to fly up to 25,000 ft. and the service ceiling of the airplane I was flying was, also, 25,000 ft.).
As I approached the beginning of the bad weather, I quickly realized the clouds were much higher than 20,000 ft. I climbed to 23,000 ft and I was just skimming the tops. That altitude worked for a while, but I would eventually have to climb to 25,000 ft. At this altitude, many things could go quite wrong.
- The biggest issue at this altitude is oxygen. As we go up in altitude, there is the same number of oxygen molecules as there is at sea level, but because of reduced partial pressure, those molecules are spaced farther apart. Consequently, the partial pressure of oxygen in the bloodstream is significantly reduced; so there is not enough pressure to allow the oxygen to force its way into the blood, and you cannot breathe deeply or fast enough to compensate. (Source). This is why I had to wear the big blue pressurized oxygen mask (it is the same thing fighter pilots wear, only they also wear a helmet and theirs looks cooler). The real danger at this altitude is a slow leak or my oxygen system slowly being drained and my sensor not recognizing the O2 bottle is low. The reason this is dangerous, is that I cannot immediately tell that O2 is flowing. My flow meter tells me how much O2 is pumping, but I am not looking at that 100% of the time. If my oxygen were to stop, my EPT (effective performance time) is only 3 minutes. That means that in a little as three minutes, I would be unable to accomplish or understand remedial tasks. My TUC (time of useful consciousness) is 6 minutes, meaning I would be unconscious in 6 minutes. In essence, if my O2 flow was interrupted for 3 minutes, I would be so dumb (due to hypoxia) I would not remember how to fly, and I would be unconscious in 6 minutes meaning I would fly until I ran out of gas and crashed. So, Oxygen = IMPORTANT
- Second, at 25,000 ft., I do not have much airspeed to play with. Not to get overly complicated, but as an airplane goes up in altitude, the air is thinner and the wing produces less lift in the thinner air. Therefore, in order to continue to fly, the airplane must fly faster. BUT, as the air gets thinner, the engine produces LESS power meaning the airplane’s top speed drops as we go up in altitude. Normally, I have about 100 kts between stall speed and “top speed” at 12,000 ft. At 25,000 ft. I only have about 30 kts (meaning that my airspeed can only fluctuate 30 knots between stalling and crashing and over-speeding and the wings ripping off).
- That leads me to the mountain waves and turbulence. Mountain waves look like waves in a pool. When the wind blows fast, the mountains push it upwards and these “waves” can go all the way to 60,000+ ft. Eventually these waves also come back down. Since the waves live in the jet stream, they are blowing 80-150 knots. Wind blowing down at 100 kts creates a lot of force. Some down waves are known to push down around 1000-3000 ft./minute. That means, in order to maintain altitude, I have to climb a 1000-3000 ft./minute. Every time my airplane hit one of these “down waves,” it tried to push me down into the ice clouds below. The only choice I had was to pull up, lose airspeed, and try to maintain altitude. Mountain waves can be a very dangerous weather phenomenon. In fact, there are many instances of mountain waves pushing big, powerful, jets into the mountains below. Sometimes the wind is just so strong, even the most powerful airplanes cannot out climb them.
- On top of all that, the turbulence in mountain waves tends to be severe. This was certainly the case this day. This was the worst turbulence I have ever experienced in a GA airplane. I had a backpack in the seat next to me, I hit one pocket of rough air that caused one wing to lose lift, and we descended so fast that the backpack was pinned to the ceiling for a solid 2 seconds. To put it in perspective, later that day, a 737 flying through the same area had three passengers taken to the hospital due to turbulence.
Obviously, I made it through this flight to write this blog today. However, it was a flight, which was not my idea of “fun.” As a pilot, I am trained to always have an “out.” There should always be a plan B, C, and D. A few times during this flight, I had no plan B, which is not a good feeling.
Luckily, I did make it to Goodland, Kansas in one piece. I could not have done it without Ashley. She was able to text me over my satellite phone and inform me where the weather was good enough to descend and not pick up too much ice. Just north of Denver the clouds thinned enough for me to rocket through a hole and get down below the icing layer. I picked up about ¼ – ½ inch of ice, which is not that big of a deal in the airplane I was flying. I ended up overnighting in Dodge City, Kansas due to fog in Wichita.
The following day I made it to Wichita after the fog cleared. Another successful, yet stressful, delivery!
Christmas at home, in Texas, was just what the doctor ordered. I spent the 5 days with family, and flying the Cub and 195. The weather was perfect and warm. I enjoyed Church with my family on Christmas Eve, and opened presents with them Christmas morning. To cap off the weekend the Atkinson’s joined us for a decadent Christmas dinner at my childhood home.
My next December adventure was from Sandpoint, Idaho to Monterrey, Mexico. A gentleman from Mexico bought a plane based in Sandpoint. He asked me if I could help him with some instruction on his way back down to Mexico. I was thrilled at the opportunity since I had never been to Monterrey, Mexico before.
Our trip began with decent weather in Idaho, which, in December, is a rare event. Along the way, we flew over Yellowstone National Park, Red Lodge, MT, and landed in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The weather was not great in Cheyenne and only got worse as we made our way over Denver to Lubbock, TX. Along the Colorado, Wyoming boarder, climbing through 14,000 ft. we began picking up moderate ice and continued in icing conditions all the way to the New Mexico border. Luckily, this airplane was outfitted with deicing equipment and it was a nonissue.
For my non-pilot readers, ice is arguably the most dangerous part of flying. On the ground, precipitation generally comes in the form of rain, sleet, or snow. In the air, it can take many more forms. Clouds, by definition, are visible water vapor. If the air temperature at a specific altitude is below freezing, those small drops of water vapor can be “supercooled.” In essence, in their native state, they are liquid water but as soon as something disturbs them, they immediately turn into ice. Imagine driving through fog, and as soon as the fog/mist hits your windshield, it freezes before your windshield wipers can wipe it away. Soon you would not be able to see out your front windshield. That is what happens to airplanes. Only it is much more dangerous because you cannot just pull off the side of the road and scrap that ice off. On top of that, it also freezes to the wings. A little bit of ice can change the shape of the wing, in essence, it can change the shape so much, the wing will stop producing lift, and you will fall out of the sky. Oh, and it can freeze to your prop and air intake, creating problems for your engine, eventually leading to engine failure. Last, ice is heavy, very heavy. A small accumulation of ice can add hundreds of pounds of weight to the airplane. When an airplane weighs more, it needs to create more lift in order to fly… which is exactly the opposite of what is happening when the ice is changing the shape of the wing. To conclude, a few minutes in icing conditions can wreak havoc on a flying plane of any size. The good news for me was, this particular airplane has a “weeping wing.” The leading edges of the wing have microscopic holes that slowly leak glycol (a form of alcohol). It works in a similar fashion to a soaker hose people use in gardens. The glycol has a lower freezing point then water. As it “weeps” from the wings, it coats them in a film of fluid, which prevents the ice from sticking to the airplane. It also has similar protection on the windshield and engine so ice does not form on them either.
Our flight over Denver was neat because we were vectored directly overhead Denver International Airport. The airport is just barely visible in a few of the photos below. Upon reaching Texas, the clouds began to clear and we were treated with a heavenly, west Texas, sunset.
The following day, the owner, and I loaded up the plane in Lubbock and departed for Mexico. Entering Mexico in a private airplane is straightforward; however, it does take an understanding of the Mexican customs system. Luckily, the owner was a Spanish speaker and was able to help me understand the processes.
As soon as we crossed the border, near Del Rio, I quickly realized my job as an instructor had just become a lot harder. In Mexico, the rules, airspaces, language, and aviation infrastructure is wildly different. As a pilot, who learned to fly in the U.S.A., I have grown accustomed to the aviation luxuries we have here. Here are a few of the luxuries that immediately stopped working once we entered Mexico:
- The XM Datalink completely stopped working. In layman’s terms, the XM datalink is a satellite link that beams certain weather data to the avionics in the airplane. This is EXTREMELY helpful when flying in foul weather. It allows pilots to “see” the weather ahead, avoid the bad stuff and plan ahead – a lifesaver in every sense of the word.
- There is no such thing a GPS Direct. In the States, GPS is everywhere. When flying, direct means a straight line from one point to another. GPS allows pilots in the U.S.A. to fly from one small airport to another in a straight line, without following “airways.” Airways are highways in the sky, but just like roads, sometimes these highways take you out of the way, adding precious time to the trip. While GPS still works in Mexico, the Mexican controllers do not have ground radar to “see” where plans are. The controllers have to be able to “see” the airplane in order to make sure our airplane is not going to hit another airplane. For reference, if we had been able to go “direct” to our final destination we would have save 25 minutes and 75 nautical miles.
- The VHF radio’s that we use to talk to the ground controllers are less numerous than in the states. This meant that the first 45 minutes of our flight we had no form of communication with the Mexican controllers. This sounds bad, though we knew the route of flight we were supposed to take so it was not a huge deal… until the weather got bad. Since we had no other way to know what the weather was doing ahead of us, our last resort was talking to people on the ground who could look it up for us. However, when we were not able to speak with them, we had no way of knowing if we were flying into a super storm, or just a rain cloud. (Obviously, during our preflight weather briefing I checked the weather and knew it was not that bad, but it is still disconcerting to fly into a dark cloud and not know just how big and bad that cloud is).
- Once we were able to speak with the Mexican controllers, I realized they did not like to speak English (which, by law, they have to be able to do). We began receiving instruction in Spanish, which I do not know fluently. Luckily, the owner knew Spanish; however, it made instructing extremely difficult!
- They have fewer approaches to the airport. An “approach” is the way a pilot navigates the airplane from altitude down to the ground. This is a complicated set of coordinates, altitudes, lines, and frequencies that a pilot must follow in order not to hit terrain, towers, or anything else while we are in the clouds. In the U.S.A., there are multiple approaches to every runway at each airport. GPS approaches are the norm, and are easier because they are already preloaded into the GPS Avionics Unit. However, in Mexico there are NO GPS approaches. This airport only had ONE VOR approach (which, for the sake of simplicity, is MUCH more difficult than a GPS approach).
This day, Monterrey, was socked in with fog and high cloud tops. Fog is the most difficult thing for a pilot to land in. Flying an approach where we are “blind” (i.e. in the clouds) to only 200 ft. above the ground is very dangerous. Unfortunately, this is exactly what we had to do this day. Being new to Mexico, I was unfamiliar with the geography surrounding Monterrey. About 50 nm outside of the city, I began to see dark peaks on the horizon. I quickly realized these were the tops of very tall mountains. As I zoomed into our terrain database, I realized Monterrey sits in a valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Today, these 6000-8000 ft. peaks were obscured by clouds, except the top few hundred feet (as you can see in the photos below). This is not necessarily comforting when flying in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar person, in an unfamiliar language.
We also were faced with a circling approach. This means that the runway in use was not the runway the approach lined us up for. Once we got below the clouds, where we could visually see the airport, we had to circle to another runway. This just adds to the hectic-ness during landing. Luckily, my student was a seasoned pilot and between the two of us, we got the plane on the ground safely.
If that was not adventure enough, the real adventure began once I was on the ground. We spent 4-5 hours going through Mexican customs, and getting the paperwork sorted out with the airplane. After the plane was legally in Mexico, we spent the rest of the afternoon getting it into the hangar, cleaning it up, and touring Monterrey.
Next, my student had his driver take me to my hotel, near the bigger, international airport. Monterrey is an interesting city. Income inequality is unlike anything I have seen before. There are slums, upon slums, upon slums, then in the middle of nowhere there will be a neighborhood that would seem more at home in Beverly Hills. In addition, the roads are unbelievable. There were speed bumps in the middle of a highway, roads would suddenly just end, a highway would end into a city center, some streets would go from 4 lanes to one lane, and don’t even get me started on the drivers. I will say that everyone seems to be okay with it. Even with the chaos, things seem to get along just fine.
The following day I flew to Los Angles, California for another work engagement. I had some free time that evening and decided to go down to Newport Beach in Orange County to check out the annual Newport Beach Christmas Yacht Parade. This ended up being a neat event! Before the parade, I walked around Balboa Island and admired the Christmas lights on all the beautiful homes. The parade itself is unlike anything else I have seen. These folks put thousands of dollars’ worth of lights and effects on these boats. It is unbelievable. One even had a fire-breathing dragon. I definitely recommend this to anyone in the area for Christmas!
The following morning I spent some time in Malibu enjoying peace and serenity on the beach. I was also greeted with an incredible sunset as I left LA for Seattle.