On final for runway 14R at BFI in a Diamond DA-40 - this wasn't from our mountain-flying day, but it's too pretty of a photo to leave out of the article. Katie Bailey photo

On final for runway 14R at BFI in a Diamond DA-40 – this wasn’t from our mountain-flying day, but it’s too pretty of a photo to leave out of the article


This is a continuation of my multi-part series on learning to fly. You can read the whole Fly With Francis series here.

The lousy Pacific Northwest early spring weather notwithstanding, I’ve made good progress towards learning both the Garmin G1000 instrumentation and the Diamond DA-40 aircraft. We recently got a decent break in the weather that allowed a flight from Seattle across the Cascade Mountains to Ellensburg for some basic mountain flying training.

Cruising westbound at 6,500' over Snoqualmie Pass was an amazing experience. Katie Bailey photo

Cruising westbound at 6,500′ over Snoqualmie Pass was an amazing experience – Photo: Katie Bailey

I’ve got about 10 hours in the DA-40 now, all but one of them with Carl, my ever-patient CFI. I finally felt comfortable enough with the plane to take it out on my own last week, even though Carl had deemed me ready to do that about five flight hours previously. I just wanted a bit more time with the plane, as it’s quite a bit different than the Cessna 172, especially in that it’s a lot faster and a bit fussier when it comes to controls, and it’s got a constant-speed propeller (also sometimes referred to as a variable-pitch propeller) that needs tending to via a dedicated control lever.

If you’ve been following this series, you’ll have read a bit about route-finding through mountainous terrain in my December, 2020 story about my certification checkride. There are, pardon the pun, mountains of information and classes available concerning mountain flying. Here in western Washington state we’ve got a large mountain range to both the east (the Cascades) and the west (the Olympics), so it’s pretty much required reading if you want to fly beyond the Puget Sound area. Flying over and through the mountains also requires different training than is needed for landing in mountainous areas, so I’ll be tackling the landings next as my post-certification training continues.

The lakes at the summit of Snoqualmie Pass are quite distinctive and make great visual navigation checkpoints. Katie Bailey photo

The lakes at the summit of Snoqualmie Pass are quite distinctive and make great visual navigation checkpoints – Photo: Katie Bailey

Route-finding through mountainous terrain is definitely about avoiding the granite, but it’s also about doing your best to make sure you have options if something goes wrong in the air. If you need to land in a hurry, for whatever reason – be it mechanical issues or being surprised by unexpected bad weather – you want options. So, both the outbound and return routes followed Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass, which offered lower terrain, and a four-lane highway as an option for emergency landings, as well as a couple of mountain airstrips along the way. We flew the outbound leg at a higher altitude, and the return at a lower one to gain experience with both options.

Here we're adjusting the autopilot to turn a a bit more to the left while passing over Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state. Katie Bailey photo

Here we’re adjusting the autopilot to turn a a bit more to the left while passing over Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state – Photo: Katie Bailey

On a clear day with relatively smooth air, it was a glorious flight eastbound over the mountains at 9,500′, taking less than an hour to cover the 93 miles from Seattle to Ellensburg (which, for comparison, takes more than two hours by car via I-90).

On the downwind leg for landing at Ellensburg, Wash. Katie Bailey photo

On the downwind leg for landing at Ellensburg, Wash. – Photo: Katie Bailey

We practiced using the autopilot as much as possible, but it does require constant monitoring and adjustments to avoid clouds, while watching for other aircraft traffic, etc. Also, the DA-40 requires manually switching the two wing fuel tanks every 30 minutes to keep the load balanced, so watching for those alerts on the G1000 becomes part of your instrument scan.

Touching down on runway 29 at KELN. Katie Bailey photo

Touching down on runway 29 at KELN – Photo: Katie Bailey

The outbound flight went by quickly. After stopping to stretch our legs a bit at Ellensburg, it was back in the plane to enter the new flight plan into the nav system and head back to Seattle, this time through the pass at 4,500′ to 6,500′ (south and westbound flights are at even altitudes plus 500′, north and eastbound at odd altitudes).

While at ELN, we all visited the small mailbox outside the FBO containing the stamp for our Fly Washington passports. It’s a fun (and free) program to encourage pilots to visit airports in the state and log their adventures. If you’re a pilot (or have a pilot friend) in or near Washington state, I definitely recommend checking it out.

On short final for runway 32R back at KBFI. Katie Bailey photo

On short final for runway 32R back at KBFI – Photo: Katie Bailey

We had planned to fly at or below the tops of the mountain peaks traversing Snoqualmie Pass, but there was a fair bit of mountain-wave turbulence at 4,500′, so we climbed to 6,500′ into clear air – the DA-40 feels like it gets tossed around a bit more than the C172s in rough air. Mountain-wave turbulence happens on the downwind side of terrain, such as we experienced flying westbound into headwinds passing over the peaks. Mountain-wave turbulence and rotor waves are but two of the more uncomfortable/dangerous types of turbulence encountered in mountainous regions. Rapidly-forming clouds are another, especially when the temperature and dewpoint are within 3ËšC of one another, so very thorough weather awareness, both pre-flight and updating in flight, are essentials.

More to come about mountain flying and, hopefully soon, the start of instrument training.

There are too many stories out there that promise new kinds of airplanes, amenities, and airports. We are not going to lie… when we see these stories, we get pumped.

“Radical…we can’t wait until we fly in an electric airliner that flies at three times the speed of sound and takes off and lands at an airport racetrack!”

We are told that these things are coming “very soon,” but we wait and wait and wait. Nothing. We have gotten sick and tired of getting emotionally AvGeek hurt (that is a thing) because these technologies never come through. Instead of just sitting around, we decided to do something about it!

INTRODUCING THE SlingPlane 5001-200NWN (No Wings Needed)

The SlingPlane 5001-200NWN

The SlingPlane 5001-200NWN… well an advance, high-tech drawing of it at least

We knew this endeavor of building our own plane was not going to be easy, but we have made such tremendous progress. We didn’t want to make the same mistakes of the others who had tried before us, so we quickly skimmed all their business plans (aka looked at the photos) and made solid assumptions on what went wrong. Here are the most common issues we found that led to failure:

A Southwest Air 737-700 seen at BDL. - Photo: JL Johnson

A Southwest Air 737-700 seen at BDL – Photo: JL Johnson

A few weeks ago I posted about how I was ready to fly. This is a follow-up to that story. You can start there (link opens in a new tab), or this story can also stand on its own.

I recently completed my first COVID-era trip. My AvGeek wife and I flew to Connecticut on Southwest with the following routing: MCI-MDW-BDL-BWI-MCI. Two years ago our trip wouldn’t have been noteworthy nor deserving of an AirlineReporter piece. But here we are. Everything is different in our new reality and frankly any chance to fly (even to cold places despite a brutal winter) is special.

Once the lockdowns began and the reality of the pandemic set in, I decided I needed to remain grounded until a vaccine became available and I had it in my arm. Not for risk to myself, but to protect others and not allow myself to be an unwitting vector for transmission. My decision came with a serious sense of FOMO (fear of missing out.) Airfares plummeted, airlines were flying planes nearly empty, terminals seemed abandoned, and hundreds of planes were put into storage. Heck some planes were parked on perfectly good runways for lack of space elsewhere. I say all of this to underscore a point. There were many reasons why I really wanted to get out there. But I resisted.

As I booked my first trip in over a year I wondered if upon getting back out there I would regret waiting to be fully vaccinated before flying. Perhaps all of the PR that airlines, airports, and their lobbying groups had pushed could be trusted? Maybe it was indeed safe to fly?

N913AK on its takeoff roll from SEA on its inaugural revenue flight for Alaska Airlines on March 1, 2021. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer Lindgren

N913AK on its takeoff roll from SEA on its inaugural revenue flight for Alaska Airlines on March 1, 2021 – Photo: Jeremy Dwyer Lindgren

On March 1 at 6:30 a.m., Alaska Airlines’ first Boeing 737 MAX 9 took to the skies from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on a flight to San Diego. That flight made Alaska the third U.S. carrier to place the MAX into service since the plane’s grounding was lifted at the end of 2020, and it was the first airline to place the plane into service that didn’t receive any of its orders prior to the grounding in March 2019.

What was it like? Alaska did invite the local news media and AvGeek outlets to cover the departure, but the event was tastefully subdued overall.  The worst part? Getting up at 2:30 a.m. to get to the airport on time. The best part? The flight itself, of course. As we reviewed back in 2019 before the grounding, the MAX offers a fine passenger experience, even more so now that the tragic issues with the aircraft’s avionics have been sorted and certified.

The flight crew consisted of Alaska's fleet captain and chief training pilot

The flight crew consisted of Alaska’s fleet captain and chief training pilot

During the standard preflight passenger briefing, the pilots commented on how much they liked flying the new aircraft, saying that Alaska did 50 hours of proving flights over 19,000 miles with that plane prior to putting it into line service, including several flights for employees. They also noted the MAX’s greater efficiency, saving 15% in fuel costs over the prior model.

As I experienced on Icelandair's Max 8, the plane is noticeably quieter in the cabin than the NG series planes the MAX replaces, even when seated near the engines

As I experienced on Icelandair’s Max 8, the plane is noticeably quieter in the cabin than the NG-series planes the MAX replaces, even when seated near the engines

I flew in coach, seated in row 13 both ways, in the aisle southbound and at the window back to SEA. If you’re familiar with Alaska’s current 737 NG cabin  configurations, the overall layout is the same, save for some nice detail improvements, including additional USB ports that are much more accessible, and a clever device holder in the seatbacks. All in all, the MAX 9 provides a very comfortable and surprisingly quiet passenger experience.

This was my first commercial flight in nearly 12 months, and the biggest change I noticed was how often the flight attendants came through the cabin to pick up trash. Well, that, and there were no hot meals, alcoholic beverages, or poured soft drinks offered – water and soda were dispensed in single-serving cans or bottles.

Alaska has orders to take delivery of 68 MAX 9s, with options for an additional 52, so the MAX plays a primary role in the airline’s plan to modernize its fleet. Alaska plans to eventually divest itself of most of the Airbus A319/320ceos it acquired as part of its acquisition of Virgin America, coming closer to being an all-Boeing airline once again, although it does look like they’ll hang onto the 10 A321neos in their fleet for now.

The outbound flight to San Diego was quite full, with plenty of AvGeeks and Alaska Air crew in evidence. The return flight was considerably less full, more in line with what I’m told are more normal passenger loads given current COVID concerns.

Alaska is currently using N913AK on two daily roundtrip routes from Seattle; flights 482 and 539 to and from San Diego in the morning and early afternoon, and flights 398 and 705 to and from Las Angeles in the late afternoon and evening.

Here we are on the base turn over Elliott Bay in Seattle on the way back to SEA. The MAX's engines are considerably larger than the NG

Here we are on the base turn over Elliott Bay in Seattle on the way back to SEA. The MAX’s engines are considerably larger than the NG.