Flying with Friends

In Memory of the FAM Flight

One of the perks that all Air Traffic Controllers used to take advantage of prior to 9-11 was familiarization training – more commonly known as FAM flights.  This allowed Controllers to get a feel for the capabilities of various aircraft, and enhance the relationship between these two interrelated professions.   ATC specialists could negotiate rides with local pilots or schedule a flight anywhere with an airline and then fly the jump seat in the cockpit.  You could only do this if someone with higher authority did not want that seat for that flight, but most of the time it was available.

Over 20 years I was invited to ride in 23 different types of aircraft – large and small.  Helicopters, bi-planes, big air carriers, single engine Cessnas, military cargo craft, hot air balloons – all excellent rides!

I miss flying in the jump seat of the air carriers whenever I fly.  The view of everything from there beat the heck out of scrunching down and looking through a passenger window.  You could watch the instruments and listen to ATC, and best of all you could just TALK to the pilots rather than ordering them around or conforming to FAA language.

Some of the air carrier pilots were very adamant that FAM flights were for training – so they trained me.  I learned how to open and close the doors on the aircraft, I was told how to break open the cockpit window and climb down a rope in case of an emergency landing.  Several pilots went over how all the instruments worked and gave me insights as to the differences between the types of aircraft.

I learned such tidbits as B727’s climb like dogs and drop like rocks – so if you have to change a B727’s altitude, descend him. On the other hand, B737’s prefer to climb.  Learjet pilots love unrestricted climbs on departure, one pilot told me a Learjet is the next best thing to flying a fighter plane.

One military helicopter unit invited some of the Tower personnel to ride along.  Four of us climbed into the body of the UH60 Helicopter used by the Search and Rescue team at Kirtland AFB for a ride into the mountains.  The door was left open as we swooped over the mountain ridges and valleys – which was a blessing when one of the guys from the tower got airsick.

Of course, living in the Hot Air Balloon Capitol of the world I had access to a plethora of balloon pilots willing to trade rides for assistance in setting up and and taking down the huge balloons.  When balloons launch they pretty much have to go where the winds take them.  Each as a chase crew racing up and down roads and sometimes across open desert so they can be there to help the pilot and passengers fold the huge fabric canopy  and tuck it away after landing. Since these rides are mostly in the cool hours of really early mornings they are normally followed with a breakfast featuring Huevos Rancheros and Mimosas.

While stationed in El Paso I was lucky enough accompany a NASA instructor pilot as he taught an astronaut how to land the space shuttle.  NASA uses a modified G2 for its training.  The left seat (pilot) has space shuttle instrumentation, the right seat (instructor) has standard Gulfstream instrumentation.

On the NASA FAM trip, I was standing in the aisle behind both pilots holding onto bars attached to the walls.  The practice strip is in White Sands Missile Range – which is also one of the alternate landing sites for the shuttles. Out of El Paso we flew north and climbed to about 33,000 feet – then the instructor pilot in the right seat effectively cut the power to the aircraft so that it would drop like a rock.

The astronaut used the shuttle controls to maneuver this rapidly descending aircraft into position over the gypsum airstrip.  Once he achieved a level where his eyes would be if he was in the shuttle, the instructor kicked the engines back in so they can climb up again.

Standing behind the pilots was a rush because when they cut out the engines the nose of the aircraft was pointed downward so sharply that I was looking down at the ground through the windows while standing up. I stood for about 5 trips up and down – then the G forces got to me and I sat in back.  The astronauts have to do a dozen of these maneuvers in one trip so they get good at them even when they are tired.

In 2007 I hopped a ride with a friend in his Pipe Cherokee up to a big aviation event in Oshkosh, Wisconsin which takes place every summer.  Oshkosh is a true celebration of aviation.  From early morning to late evening there are aircraft of all kinds in the air and on the ground.  People camp under the wings of their planes or fill up all the hotels and university dorm rooms in this small Wisconsin town.

As I flew home from vacation recently, I sat back in my seat next to the tiny window of an air carrier and thought to myself how much I would prefer to be flying in the uncomfortable little bitty jump seat again – even if I had to pay for the privilege.