Kevin Garrison

The High & the Writey: Never Kick a Frozen Chock


Field-tested rules about what to do, and what not to do.

I officially entered Old Pilot status a few years ago and with that designation comes a responsibility to preach to you, the choir. 

You could—and up until now, you have—gotten along fine without my advice and bloviating about all things aviation. Let’s assume though that even though your flying life has been going along OK without my unsolicited guidance, the bon mots that I am about to “mote” you with will be the cream cheese icing on your aeronautical carrot cake.

Please relax. There will be no test after I list my rules. There isn’t even a requirement that you follow any of them. Many of them might seem insipid and not very well-thought-out. 

Rest assured that each one has been tested, in the field, by yours truly. These rules are the result of multiple times I have been scared, cold, hot, nauseated, or just plain marinating in a Crock-Pot of stupidity.

Much like the Federal Aviation Regulations, most of these guidelines tell you what you should not do, rather than what you should. The first set of rules are ones that I learned in my callow youth as a lineboy, ramp rat and semi-employed CFI and charter pilot. Following those will be rules that will interest you if you fly or ever wanted to fly airplanes for a living. 

Things I learned as a lineboy/CFI

• Never kick a chock. When I was a lineboy I mastered the skill of kicking a chock across a hangar floor with it ending up against an aircraft’s wheel. It was later that I learned that chocks can freeze solid to the ground in cold weather and be full of angry wood bees in warm climes.

• Another hard-learned lineboy rule: Never walk through a totally dark hangar. Rotor blades from helicopters, wings of airplanes and random aircraft antennae will seek you out, smack you in the head and knock you down as you pick your way back to the hangar door.

• Never prop a stranger’s airplane. I know this rule seems harsh, but I have propped hundreds of airplanes over the years and have kept all 10 of my fingers by only helping pilots I know and trust.

• If you can’t stand up and/or keep falling on the ramp, it is probably too icy to taxi your airplane on it.

• Always check your own fuel caps, oil caps and access doors.

• There is always time for a clearing turn.

• You should never hurry. If you are on the ground and get confused, set the parking brake and take some time to figure it out. If you are in the air, ask for holding or delaying vectors. Never fly on ATC’s schedule. They are never at the crash scene. You always arrive first.

• Never let a dispatcher, FAA briefer, your boss, your student or an air traffic controller decide your fate. You are in command—so, command.

• If you are on the line crew and are changing jet fuel nozzles, always turn the truck off before you try to change over from over-the-wing to single point. (It took me a couple of Jet-A showers before I learned this one.)

• Never hold a garbage can up to a big airplane in an attempt to dump the toilets. This looks like a good idea at the time, but trust me, it isn’t pretty.

• There are usually two kinds of air hoses in an airplane maintenance shop. One is a low-pressure air hose and the other is a high-pressure nitrogen hose. One hose will fill up your air mattress and bicycle tires. The other, if not used properly, can blow your fingers off.

• Speaking of shop hazards, I have made it a personal rule that I never handle hydraulics or high-wattage electricity. Any time a mechanic says, “You can service that yourself; just stick your head in the wheel well, and…” I defer to the A&P and ask him or her to take care of it. I like my head—and a few dollars is a small price to pay for me to keep it attached to my neck.

• Never, ever be the first to volunteer for anything. Let another pilot try flying through that hole in the line of thunderstorms or attempt that 35-knot crosswind takeoff.

• You should never comment to other people flying with you on how well you just traversed that area of thunderstorms without much turbulence. Karma will rear up and kick you in the butt if you do, and you’ll immediately get a terrible ride. I have tested this rule a lot and it has worked every time.

• Always write down your last frequency somewhere. Nowadays most radios are flip-flop, but you should never have to search for a frequency longer than a minute or two, even if you must break out and look at a navigational chart to do so.

• Whatever facts about your flight that you don’t know—and you will not know a lot—can always be looked up.

• The best pilots are self-doubting pilots. Never trust a pilot who thinks he or she knows everything.

 And now, a few things I learned while flying in the airline world:

• You should realize that you never look as good at the layover motel’s swimming pool as you think you do.

• You can never be senior enough.

• If you ever do get senior enough, avoid trips that go through ATL or DFW.

• You should always take the time to admire the pictures that are shown to you by flight attendants of their cats, girlfriends and boyfriends.

• Absolutely nobody wants to hear stories about your dog, your kids—or your political opinions.

• No matter how expensive, big and fancy an airplane you are flying, it will still feel like crap to you when you are flying at 3:00 a.m. I learned this one flying international on the Boeing 777.

• You will never get back the Christmas mornings you flew a trip instead of spending it with your spouse and kids. It is a cost of doing the job, and it hurts.

• The company you fly for is not a family, and it is certainly not your family.

• The most scared person on my flight crew almost always wins when it comes to deciding whether to take a course of action or to deviate around weather. Scared copilots have kept me from doing something stupid dozens of times in my career.

• You never know which flying trip will be your last, so enjoy them all as much as you can.

What are your unshakable flying rules? Send them to me in care of Cessna Flyer, and we’ll all get in the hangar and discuss them at the next Rules Committee meeting.

Kevin Garrison’s aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Florida. He came up through General Aviation and retired as a 767 captain in 2006. Currently Garrison is a DC-9 simulator instructor and a 767 pilot instructor; his professional writing career has spanned three decades. He lives with the most patient woman on the planet on a horse farm in Kentucky. Send questions or comments to .

The Cutlass is a Utility Knife

The Cutlass is a Utility Knife

CFI and contributing editor Kevin Garrison recalls the welcome sight of a 172RG on the ramp.

I have never been able to figure out how Cessna named its airplanes. Piper named their aircraft with a Native American flavor (Cherokees, Pawnees, Navajos); Beechcraft went royal and named almost all of their aircraft after various one-percenters and birthers with Barons, Queen Airs and Dukes. Aero Commanders were named after birds, I think. (Is a Shrike a bird?)

Cessna seems to have named their airplanes after what had to be a heck of a binge of “name the airplane” meetings that were fueled by caffeine and unfiltered cigarettes. Maybe they held the meetings in some sort of airplane-glue drying room and the fumes simply got to them. How else do you explain a series of unrelated names that include 172 Skyhawk, 150 Commuter, 182 Skylane, 162 SkyCatcher and 172RG Cutlass?

The coolest product of 1980

Cutlass is a pretty cool name and I wish the glue fumes had abated at that naming meeting long enough for the group to stick with a cutlery motif. Imagine… the Cessna 162 Dagger, the Cessna 182 Hatchet and the Cessna 205 Butter Knife.

Some people have said of the Cessna 172RG that putting a constant speed prop and retractable gear on a Skyhawk is like sending your pet pig to an expensive spa for a liposuction and tooth whitening. No matter how much you spend on a makeover, you only end up with a slightly slimmer and sexier pig.

I have flown quite a few different makes and models of aircraft during the past four decades, and I can assure you that the Cessna 172RG is no pig. It flies great—it’s a little flashier than its littermate, the 172 Skyhawk—and it was the perfect trainer to use for complex and high performance endorsements. (In 1997, the FAA updated its definitions such that “high performance” applies to aircraft over 200 hp only. See the sidebar on page 54. —Ed.)

The 172RG was first on the scene in 1980 and it may have been the coolest thing to happen during that particular lap that our earth took around the sun. How could something so nice come from a year in which we were all dancing to “The Pina Colada Song” by Rupert Holmes?

A steady performer

The Cutlass came off of the factory floor in Kansas sporting a variable-pitch, constant speed propeller, a Lycoming O-360-F1A6 engine that could produce 180 hp, and landing gear that was no longer welded in the down position. 

We instructors liked what we saw when 172RGs began showing up on our flight school ramps. What was not to like? It looked like a Skyhawk, kind of flew like a Skyhawk, and we were paid a dollar or two more than we usually got for instructing in a Skyhawk. 

You may not remember that high performance and complex airplane instructing was usually billed out at a few bucks more than your average CFI time, but I do. That couple of greenbacks bought me more than one six-pack of Billy Beer back in the day. The combination of the Cutlass with all of the VA (veterans) Flight Training we were doing back then led more than one CFI into a life as an airline pilot. 

Many of us left flying the Cessna 172RG with its less-than-stellar flight performance and ascended to the airline world where we started as flight engineers on the Boeing 727… which also sported less-than-stellar climb and takeoff performance. Here is a 727-insider joke that proves my point:

Question to pilot: How many hours do you have in the 727?

Pilot: I have 6,000 hours… 4,800 of them were in climb.

Yeah, I know. You kind of had to be there to get the joke. The Cutlass, much like the 727, did not tear up the world with its performance, but like the airliner, the 172RG was a steady performer that reliably got the job done. 


More similarities than differences 

The Cutlass was a godsend for flight schools. Most students had begun their flying in the Skyhawk and the similarities between the fixed gear and the retractable gear were not only comforting, they saved training time. 

Things like instrument panel layout and how the doors and windows work in an airplane may seem easy to you now because you are clearly an aviation ninja, but students have enough problems checking out in a complex aircraft without having to try and figure out where to find the mixture control.

Flight school operators liked having a Cutlass on their ramp. Airframe work, rigging, and a host of other functions were alike enough between the models of training aircraft to make maintenance operations flow a little easier.

A wonderful teaching platform

I enjoyed flying the Cutlass quite a bit. For professional instructors like me the 172RG was a wonderful teaching platform. I liked it better than the Piper Arrow, mainly because it was easier to climb in and out of. Ease of entry and egress is important to instructors like me who are facing our golden years with the realization that our bottoms are getting wider as our hairlines are getting narrower.

Once comfortably inside the Cutlass, pilots can start and taxi out with very little muss and fuss. The constant speed propeller needs a little check during the runup, but I think you will agree that no matter how long you have been flying, you still enjoy that “wooooosh” that happens when you cycle the prop.

Takeoff and climb is quite a bit like your standard welded-gear 172 with the exception of raising the gear and looking at manifold pressure and rpms. Once in the air, the Cutlass can cruise at around 140 knots, and for new RG students, the thrill of looking out of your side window and not seeing a tire can’t be overstated. 

Having uppie-downie wheels on an airplane for the first time teaches students the importance of using a checklist when flying. The saying, “There are only two kinds of pilots: those who have landed gear-up, and those who are about to,” isn’t really true. If you get in the habit of using a checklist, you don’t ever have to land gear-up. I haven’t—yet. 


It still has a place

We now live in a world where the idea of a complex airplane can seem dated. Fixed-gear mega-wonders like the Cessna 400 are slipping the surlies at airborne velocities approaching plaid speed (see the movie “Spaceballs”). 

The fact remains, though, that until the FAA changes its complex airplane rule for the commercial pilot rating—or until our alien overlords finally get around to letting us use their antigravity technology—the Cessna 172 Cutlass will have a place in our T-hangars and flight school ramps for some time to come.

Kevin Garrison’s aviation career began at age 15 as a lineboy in Lakeland, Fla. He came up through General Aviation and retired as a 767 captain in 2006. Currently Garrison is a DC-9 simulator instructor and a 767 pilot instructor; his professional writing career has spanned three decades. He lives with the most patient woman on the planet on a horse farm in Kentucky. Send questions or comments to .

The High and the Writey: Young Heroes, Yesterday and Today

A conversation next to a B-17 can reach across generations.

I asked Steve, a local teenaged ramp rat, to go with me to the airport to look at two World War II bombers that were visiting for the weekend. I am a student of—and at my age, damn near a remnant of—that period of flying.

Today’s display models visiting Lexington, Kentucky were a B-24 and a B-17. Exquisitely restored right down to their machine guns, these aircraft gave the ramp some much-needed class. Warbirds are a big deal at our airport, where it’s much more typical to see a Cessna doing touch-and-goes on a nice afternoon. Tangible reminders of air combat are almost never on our field.

We bought our tickets and sauntered out to the ramp where this seasoned pilot did something he hadn’t done very much of during the past decade or so: I walked around a big airplane. 

See, in the world of airlines where I spent my professional life, the captain rarely does a walkaround or preflight. That is flight engineer or copilot territory. For the type rating and subsequent recurrent training sessions, captains like me had to display knowledge of and the ability to do a walkaround, but to see a captain out on the ramp for a preflight is rare.

On this bright, sunny day, with Steve in tow, I started around the B-17. I noticed that the public, while seeming to like the aircraft, didn’t seem to get much out of simply being around it. I think this is because people nowadays look upon warbirds like the B-17 as some sort of idealized toy. They have no idea what the people who flew them went through. 

I stopped under the right outboard engine and pointed to the turbocharger that was attached to the bottom. It was gray and innocuous—not something that the public would notice—and I wanted Steve to see it. “This device made high-altitude bombing possible,” I explained.

My statement prompted Steve to give a “humor the old pilot” shrug, so I resisted the urge to tell him about constant-speed props, fuel vents, hydraulics, the Norden bombsight, ADF loop antennas, Rosemount probes and the vital importance of Jimmy Doolittle establishing 100 octane fuel as the military standard before the war.

The public perception of flying today is that it is a way to get to Seattle in a hurry and on the cheap. Over the past few years when I’m riding in the back with passengers, I’ve noticed that one of the first things most window-seat travelers do is close the shade so they can’t see outside. 

It seems that flying at eight-tenths the speed of sound seven miles up is a cause for boredom instead of wonder. Flying to most people is now a commodity, like chicken strips or low-fat sour cream. The magic is gone for them because they have forgotten just how miraculous it is.

Most people today think of World War II-era aircraft as clean, shiny appliances that represent a time they barely comprehend. They see the machines, but they do not smell the cordite, the blood or the fear the crews experienced.

My companion Steve is a victim of this video game mentality about the war as well, and he began to fidget as he thought of the hundreds of other, more fun things he could be doing right now instead of following a geezer around some airplane.

“Steve,” I said, “look around you—what do you see?”

“A bunch of old-looking geeks wearing polyester ball caps,” he said.

“You’re right. Most of these old-looking guys are probably here because either they flew aircraft in the war or knew people who did. It was over 70 years ago, so these guys are pretty ancient. But do you know what I see?”

“That girl over there wearing that tank top?”

“What I was going to say is, what I see when I see these old men limping around this bomber is how they see themselves, even to this day: a bunch of brave teenagers who are about to save a planet from the worst of fates—a totalitarian nightmare. If Hitler and Tojo had won the war, we’d still be feeling its effects, or would not be alive at all.”

“The old guys that you are looking at left their homes when they were very young. They did not sign up for the promise of a college education, to learn a trade, or to receive a welcome-home parade. They signed up for ‘duration plus six months,’ meaning they were in the war until they were dead or we had won.”

“After undergoing harsh aerial training that killed way too many of them, they flew these unpressurized bombers over enemy targets bristling with guns and fighters.”

“Most of these teenage bomber commanders had less than 300 hours total flight time when they were put in charge of their planes and crews. Their instrument time was limited to whatever training they had gotten in the States and a few scant practice sessions after deployment.”

“With less instrument time than the average Cessna 172 instrument pilot school graduate, they were flying four-engine bombers in formation through the clouds and very nasty weather, often at night.”

“More than 55,000 of these teenagers never came back. Every loss of a B-17 meant that 10 crewmembers were gone as well. If they survived parachuting over Europe, they faced starvation and worse in a prison camp. If they bailed out over Japan or anywhere in the Pacific theater, they faced torture, death and possibly becoming a meal for sharks.”

Steve just looked at me. “I haven’t seen you so worked up over a subject since they stopped loading the M&Ms you like in the FBO candy machine,” he said.

I could tell that he still hadn’t made the connection between the bombers, the old guys and himself. “Steve, most of these guys were the age you are right now when they went to war. The odds of them completing all the missions unhurt or uncaptured were completely against them.”

“They knew every morning when they rolled out of their bunks in the predawn to eat breakfast and go bomb Europe or Japan that, statistically, they had no chance of going home alive.”

“When the lucky ones got home from the war, there was no professional flying for them to do. The airlines hired a few veterans, but there was no flying gig for the tens of thousands of other qualified pilots returning home. General Aviation as we know it today was just getting started. These returning pilots quietly hung up their goggles, got jobs in factories or on farms, and raised their families.

“Now the few that are left are out here on the ramp, looking at these bombers in a way that you or I never will.”

“When I look at a B-24, I might notice that the navigator’s station has a temp probe sticking out of the window. A veteran remembers what it was like to sit in that metal box in the freezing cold, hearing shrapnel from flak tearing his aircraft apart.”

“People today look upon these aircraft as quaint reminders of when a B-17 was considered a heavy strategic bomber; these guys remember washing the blood off the floors after a mission or watching another bomber crew—friends of theirs—spin in over Belgium with no chutes sighted.”

Steve nodded and wandered off to talk to the tank top girl. I was left to talk to myself for a while. Luckily, in today’s world of cell phone solo-talkers, nobody thought it strange that I was standing out in the sun, mumbling to myself on the ramp while speaking to no one:

It is the survivors who always get the last word on a subject. These old guys wandering the ramp can speak of the war of their youth and describe a little bit about what it was like back then, but the 55,000-plus guys who are buried in veteran cemeteries and small plots in Europe and the Pacific are permanently stuck in time as teenagers, full of potential that was never used. How many pilots that could have cured cancer or averted the Vietnam War died in the skies, never getting to lead their lives?

Steve came back after I’d been standing by myself for a while. He had a shy grin on his face. “What happened, Steve? Did you get a date with her or something?”

“No,” he said. “She told me she was here with her great-grandpa. I got to talk with him for a few minutes and he said that when he was my age, he’d just met a girl at his training base in the U.S. when his unit was called up and sent to fly B-29s over Japan. They’d promised to stay in touch, but he’d lost track of her and never saw her again.”

“I got to thinking—what if I had to go fight in North Korea or somewhere just after I met a girl I was meant to be with, and then never saw her again because I died or was hurt? Things are not really any different today, are they?”

I think he was starting to get the picture.

The High and Writey: Nightflight

Night Flight: An experienced night flyer shares his thoughts on aviating in the dark. 

“The villages were lighting up, constellations that greeted each other across the dusk. And, at the touch of his finger, his flying-lights flashed back a greeting to them. The earth grew spangled with light signals as each house lit its star, searching the vastness of the night as a lighthouse sweeps the sea. Now every place that sheltered human life was sparkling. And it rejoiced him to enter into this one night with a measured slowness, as into an anchorage.” 

  —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Night Flight”

I have often said that if the creator had wanted people to fly at night, she never would have invented happy hour. Humans are daytime creatures. We tend to get sleepy at night, and the more mature and sensible ones—like myself—hit the rack fairly early in the evening.

However, there is no real reason to avoid flying in the nighttime hours. There are quite a few advantages of slipping your surlies when the rest of the flying world slumbers. For example, it is impossible to get a sun-glare headache at night. The darkness found at night is not half as frightening as the darkness you run into if you enter a large thunderstorm during the day.

As I have mentioned around 10,000 times now, I used to be an airline pilot. Because I was an airline pilot, I flew an enormous amount of time late at night all over the world. When I was a very junior airline pilot, it seemed that all I ever did was fly very late at night. My first years’ trips were mostly all-nighters from one coast to another.

Later, when I got some seniority and was a captain of a very large subsonic people-mover, I flew a lot late at night because I was flying hundreds of people over oceans to various international destinations. You simply cannot fly international routes and not spend at least half of your time in the dark.

Even before my airline years, I spent quite a bit of time aviating in the evening. I flew an all-night canceled check run (kids, ask your parents about paper checks!) and flew most of my instrument students late at night.

The difference between night and day is it is generally darker at night. That is really the only difference. 

Your airplane does not care if it is flying at night or in the noontime bright. Aircraft performance does change because of variances in temperature, pressure altitude and the like, but they don’t fly through darkness any differently than they fly through bright daylight. 

We human pilots do operate differently at night than we do during the day. Our eyes and diurnal cycles have been designed and calibrated for use during the day. Our ancient forebears sought a cave or high tree limb at night because they knew that when it came to their eyesight, they had no chance against a nocturnal predator. 

The Federal Aviation Regulations recognize that flying at night is a different thing than daytime aviating. If you grab a copy of the regs, you will see that there are specific rules governing nighttime currency for pilots, but absolutely no specific daytime rules. I find that odd, but if I stopped and complained every time I thought that the FAA rules were weird, I’d never get anything done.

In the airline world that I just recently left, we never accounted for nighttime, or, for that matter, instrument time when it came to currency. We only had to follow the normal 90-day landing requirements. It was assumed that because we were flying transports all over the world that we were getting far more night time and actual instrument time than any of us wanted.


Reasons for and against flying at night

I can only think of two reasons you might think it is less safe to fly at night. One reason for non-instrument pilots is that at night it is hard—sometimes impossible—to see the horizon, making VFR flight a no-go. 

The second reason would be if you lost your only engine and had to do an emergency landing. It is very hard to find a safe place to land if you can’t see the ground or trees.

These are valid fears. It is true that the horizon is very hard to see on dark, moonless nights; open fields where you might set down a crippled airplane are also very hard to pick out. 

You certainly should never go flying if you think you would get disoriented, but if you consider all of the hazy and low-visibility daytimes you have flown, I think you’ll agree that the risk is about equal. The rule should be: never fly in any low-visibility situation—day or night—if you think you might lose the horizon.

It is true that if it is very dark and you lose your engine, you will have a difficult time picking your way between power lines and trees to make a successful engine-out landing. 

It is also true that there is often enough ambient light available at night because of the moon and other factors and you will probably do just fine. Know your route, know your limitations and plan accordingly.

Now that we have gotten the doom and gloom out of the way, let me tell you some of the ways that night flying is a lot better than sweating out a daytime flight:

• It is usually cooler and more comfortable at night. If you live in a part of the country that gets hot during the day, you will really enjoy the comfort of night flying. Your airplane will appreciate the lower temps and lower density altitude, too.

• Weather is usually nicer, and it is easier to spot. This is especially true during the time of year when there is a lot of afternoon convective activity. Also, thunderstorms are much easier to see at night than during the day because they have their very own internal strobes!

• Air Traffic Control can be more of a friend to you at night. The skies are less crowded, especially in congested areas, meaning you can get more “directs” and other favors out of your friendly controller. Warning areas, MOAs and the like are most likely “cold” during the night, meaning you can fly though them. 

• It is smoother at night. Well, it isn’t always smoother, but if you find bumpy air en route, it is much easier to get an altitude change to a smoother altitude. It is also true that your passengers are most likely asleep and are less apt to be whining and complaining if it gets bumpy.

• This is for you flight instructors out there: flight instruction is more efficient at night. You should consider advertising that you will do instrument flight instruction at night. Most of your potential students have jobs, and there are only so many available hours for instruction during a weekend. Why not fly your instrument students at night? During nighttime IFR training flights it is easier to get actual instrument time, and it is much easier to get the approach you want from your local approach controller because they have almost no other traffic to deal with. Trust me, CFIIs—this is a big moneymaker.

I hope you will try doing your next flight at night. Take along your instructor if it has been a while since you aviated in the dark, but don’t fear the darkness! 

If you have a couple of good flashlights, a good airplane and do a little prior planning, I guarantee that you will not only have a great flight, you will also unleash the potential of your aircraft to have almost twice the available hours to fly than you had before. 

An Open-Door Policy?

An aircraft door or window popping open in flight is usually not as big a deal as the movies and popular media would like you to believe.

The sound of an aircraft’s door or window popping open is certainly startling and that alone can make some pilots over-react with some unfortunate results. If there is any real danger to an open aircraft window or door it is pilot panic.

These openings usually happen during or after takeoff and the noise can be dramatic and loud. Just fly the airplane and continue unless you are at a very slow speed on the runway. If you are slow just come to a stop, close the door or window and taxi back for takeoff. Inflight openings are rare, but are usually no problem.

 Here are some things you can do if your aircraft door or window pops open in flight:

·         You could try to close it by opening your side window or vent (if you have one) and slamming the offending door.

·         If you can’t close it simply return to the airport and land.

·         If that is not possible right away because you are flying on instruments or for some other reason just continue flying to destination and live with noise or divert and land.

Are you flying a bigger, faster airplane? No worries. When I worked as an instructor in flight training at my airline I produced a training video with a real Boeing 767 in which we flew around with both cockpit windows wide open. I would not recommend this at high altitude, but we did the video to keep the pilots from doing expensive and possibly dangerous takeoff aborts due to an open window or door.

Remember, you may freak out a little bit if your airplane adopts an open-door policy, but it is usually not a big deal.

Here is a link to a video produced by Boeing about open airline cockpit windows.