Charter Flight Basics: Preparing and Safety

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We all dream about going on an exotic hunting trip at some time or another. But in order to get there you may have to fly on a small and light aircraft. Whether it be a hunt to Alaska for Dall sheep, a trip to bag a mulie on the Middlefork of the Salmon River in Idaho or a journey to shoot a bull elk in Colorado, there are certain things you need to know about your next flight and who you fly with.

There is a saying around airports that "There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots." We're not speaking of jet jockeys. We're talking about the pilots who fly the backcountry and land on those it-looks-too-small dirt strips that seem always to be surrounded by a hundred-foot-tall lodgepole forest with a cliff at the end of the runway.

Safe flight to a remote area means more than plunking down your money and waiting for the plane to take you there. Although the world of charter companies enjoys a very good safety record, it is prudent to check them and the pilot you're considering flying with prior to your departure.

Although charter companies in the United States must be federally licensed and inspected, there can be a tremendous difference in how they administer the inspections of aircraft, hiring policies of mechanics and pilots, and how they handle their business in general. Most are very professional, courteous and have clean records, but it may save your life to ask the right questions.

Ask about the type of training the pilot has had concerning your flight. Did he/she attend a special school that trains pilots to fly in the mountains or the specific area in which you're flying? If you're flying in a float plane, is the pilot certified to fly it as well as having experience in doing so? It's a good idea to ask about how many hours he has accrued in the specific airplane you will be flying.

There also are mandatory drug tests for pilots flying with charter companies in the U.S. If a pilot fails a drug or alcohol test his license can be revoked, but he can also appeal this in court, and during the process he may not be able to fly any aircraft. You cannot obtain information about these types of actions, but you can inquire to the company's officials about the history regarding their pilots and their policies if this should arise.

Inquiry of the company's policy concerning hiring of its aircraft mechanics is important as well. Federal law requires aircraft mechanics to undergo formal schooling from a certified and approved school as well as testing of their knowledge and skills. If they are not licensed to work, do not fly on that airplane; it is unsafe to do so. This isn't the place for a friend with a toolbox to be working -- nor is that legal. Asking about the company's policy on background checks of their employees may aid you in deciding how to choose your next pilot and the company you fly with.

You may also contact the FAA in writing about records on accidents, enforcement, maintenance and incidents at:

Flight Standards Service
Aviation Data Systems Branch, AFS-620
P.O. Box 25082
Oklahoma City, OK 73125
Phone: 405-954-4171.

Although there are many areas from which to gain information on the Internet, if you want to find out about aviation accidents, go to www.ntsb.gov/aviation/Table9.htm. for information on accidents from 1982 through 1999 involving U.S. air carriers and on-demand air taxis. (The good news is you'll see the low rate of fatalities and accidents.)

Other related information can be obtained at the Web site of the National Transportation Safety Board (www.ntsb.gov). Click on "Aviation" to view your options. This is an easy site to go though and will give a great deal of information.

To find companies offering charter services in a specific area, you may use an Internet search engine such as Yahoo or Hotbot. Type in the name of the area, such as Alaska, and the words "flying" or "air charters".

If you are interested in learning more about flying small aircraft in these rugged areas or would just like some information about the type of classes a pilot would take, go to www.mountaincanyonflying.com to learn more. This is an actual school in Idaho that teaches the fine art of mountain flying as well as offering charter services. They have a great course outline on their Web site that will familiarize you with the various aspects of this type of flying.

Due to privacy laws, information about a pilot's record of aviation infractions, criminal history or aviation accidents is next to impossible to obtain from the FAA. You can however inquire about how long he has been employed and his performance with the company.

Most people usually rate how good a pilot is by how smooth his takeoffs and landings are. Although those can be a barometer to his proficiency, they don't tell the entire story -- so put that thought aside. Pilot excellence centers around many different and complex factors. Some include obtaining proper training for the terrain and meteorological conditions he will be flying you in, intimate knowledge of the area or perhaps (and this one's hardest to verify) a simple good night's sleep the night before the flight.

Repetitive training and reviews -- some mandated by federal law and actively enforced by the FAA -- also add a safety factor for the pilots. Your pilot, when asked, should gladly tell you about the type of specialized training he's had; if he doesn't, you may want to rethink flying with him.

Just because a pilot has a license and has logged many hours, that does not mean he or she is qualified to fly any airplane or to fly everywhere. A jet pilot who has been PIC (pilot in command) with thousands of hours logged flying at high altitudes has no business flying a smaller plane in mountainous areas unless he has been specifically trained both for that plane and the terrain. Those guys fly at altitudes over 30,000 feet and have miles-long paved runways, control towers and more consistent flight patterns. The real world of smaller Cessna-like charters means low-level flights, single-engine planes and short-dirt runways or grass strips. In Alaska it is legal to land, when necessary, upon roads or even on the bank of a river; some charter companies use float planes and land on water.

A pilot must be qualified in the actual airplane he is flying to be legal and that means specific training and examination from the FAA or a designated examiner privately employed to conduct this exam. The very airplane you are flying in must be signed on the back of his pilot's license by the examiner allowing him to fly that specific airplane type.

Because weather patterns, wind conditions, terrain and other quirks vary so much, it is also wise to inquire about the hours pilots have logged flying in the actual area in which you will be flying.

Remember when you're flying with one of these pilots, it's best to keep conversation at a minimum since the workload for the pilot can be stressed if you yap at him all the while. Not exactly the place for anything but absolute necessary conversation!

Cost
Charter on-demand air taxis can be very costly -- generally $175 to $500 per hour for a two- to six-seater aircraft. But they may be the only way to get where you want to go. Or, if not, they're a convenience that can save you days on foot, mule or horseback.

If you require a helicopter to do the job, the costs can grow very large very quickly. It's not uncommon to be charged an hourly rate of $450 to $1,000 for one of these birds.

Also note that flying anywhere in Alaska can be a great deal costlier than flying in the Lower 48. For example, a round-trip flight from Anchorage to Barrow currently costs about $550. A one-way ticket for a 20-minute plane ride from Kenai to Anchorage costs about $60.

One engine or two?
People logically ask what is the safest light aircraft for flying in the mountains, over water or other remote and inaccessible areas. Although statistical data is important for record keeping, in-flight accidents involve many new aircraft as well as ones that have put in thousands of hours and are 20, 30 or even 40 years old.

There's no single aircraft that is the "safe one" to fly. All commercial for-hire airplanes are required to have complete maintenance records (log books), and inspections yearly and every 100 flight hours when used for charter. These official records have to be produced for FAA investigators on request. In addition, no aircraft can be flown unless the pilot has deemed it airworthy. There are some very strict federal regulations regarding this.

The general rule about flying over water is to fly in a multi-engine plane if you're going beyond the range a plane could glide in the event of an engine failure. However, many single-engine aircraft are flown over water every day without problem.

Many people believe a multi-engine airplane is safer than a single-engine aircraft, but remember that a multi-engine airplane is also a lot more complicated aircraft. Because it has two engines, the odds that one will fail increases -- and some two-engine planes do not fly very well if one of the engines quits. And, believe it or not, some multi-engine aircraft cannot fly at all in some situations if a single engine fails.

Multi-engine airplanes also have to land faster (even if the engines are out), which means passengers are more likely to sustain injury because of the faster forward motion if there's a crash. A single-engine aircraft has the ability to land slower, which means less likelihood of injury in the event of an off-field emergency landing.

On time
Although your charter company will give you departure and arrival times, visibility, wind changes and storms in the area you're flying in can change these in just a matter of minutes. It is not unheard of to fly into a location and then have your return flight delayed for days due to bad weather. Flexibility is a key to enjoying your trip. Missing an office meeting is a lot less important than getting home safely, so do not put pressure on your pilot to get you back when there is a question regarding the weather or other safety issues. Get-backitis has killed many people.

In the event the pilot is ready to fly but you feel uncomfortable with departing, remember that there is no law that says you have to get on the plane. It may conflict with his schedule and cost you more money, but it's your safety that's at stake. Which is why it's also wise to ask in advance what the policy is regarding additional costs if you decide to change or cancel a flight.

Survival gear
Don't let down your guard just because your flight is only 20 or 30 minutes long. A trip of that duration in an airplane can still mean miles and miles of walking if the plane experiences a problem and has to put down. Add slight injury like a simple twisted ankle, and you may end up sitting and waiting for help to come for days.

So, be prepared. Although it may be July and hot, mountainous areas in the summer can mean below-freezing temperatures and snow. Wear your boots and warm clothing (or have them onboard in an accessible place) in the unlikely event your plane has to make an unexpected landing somewhere -- or crashes. The wilderness is no place for tennis shoes and light sweaters. A small rolled-up rain gear parka can mean a great difference of comfort as well. Carry insect repellent as well during the summer months as this could mean a great comfort.

Many survivable crashes end in death because the passengers had the mindset that since the flight was short they would have access to help in a short time. Not necessarily so.

Weight
Whether the airplane you're flying in is a simple two-seater Piper Super Cub or a Cessna 210 that carries six passengers, weight is ever-important. In the summer a potentially dangerous condition in high altitude areas is a phenomenon called density altitude. This condition robs an aircraft of power when it is flown in the heat of the day. In this thin air, aircraft cannot carry the loads they normally would and will climb slower as well, a thought to be reasonably concerned with when traveling during the warm months in the mountains, especially in the western United States. The condition also makes for longer takeoff rolls and longer landing requirements.

Passengers shouldn't have to worry about any of this, because pilots are schooled in figuring out the math -- and by federal law must know the absolute maximum weight limitations under different conditions to fly you safely to your destination. You also will find that most on-demand air taxis fly early morning and late day flights to avoid this less-than-optimum situation. But you can help out by carrying minimum equipment with you. Which brings us to...

Baggage
There are a host of federal rules concerning passengers and their baggage on domestic charter/air taxi flights. Depending on type of aircraft and the number of passengers on board, the average weight limitation for baggage and cargo in these type of airplanes can vary from a few hundred to more than 1,000 pounds -- a limit you will, of course, have to share with other passengers. So ask in advance how much -- in weight and size -- you can bring aboard.

Also ask in advance about hazardous or unusual items, including -- but not limited to -- propane and other fuels for your camping stove, inflammable liquids of other kinds, pressurized containers, ammo and hunting guns. Some of these goods can only be safely carried in a pressurized aircraft (and it's likely you'll be traveling in an unpressurized plane), and regulations also can vary from airport to airport (or airstrip to airstrip).

Although employees at the front counter can be helpful and give basic information in advance and when you arrive, remember that by FAA law the pilot and/or copilot are in command of the aircraft, and their word is final both on how much and what you can carry or stow aboard. So, if anyone is in doubt, ask the pilot.

Cell phones
The same rules apply on these aircraft as on commercial jetliners. You can't use your cell phone in flight. These devices can interfere with the instruments on the airplane, so keep them tucked away until you're fully stopped or receive permission to use one.

Child Car Seats
Many hunters ask about child car seats on charter aircraft when they take their families along for the trip. According to FAA regulations, it is okay for a child to be placed in one when traveling in an aircraft if this is approved with your pilot and the configuration of the airplane's seat will accommodate it. Most companies do not have them to loan, so it's wise to bring your own. If your child is under 2 years old you may hold him or her in your lap, otherwise the child will have to be placed in an individual seat. It's for their own safety as well as yours.

Flying conditions
Aircraft that take you into the backcountry fly low-level and only by VFR per FAA rules. That means visual flight rules. Flying in the clouds is always by IFR, which is instrument flight rules. That is never done in mountainous areas in low-level flight. Expect a bit of turbulence (there is no such thing as an air pocket!), but most of the time all that means is a bit of discomfort.

A VFR day in the mountains means you're likely to have one of the most beautiful experiences you'll ever remember. An IFR day means either you'll be stuck at the airport or you'll be sitting by the campfire waiting for it to clear. In the case of the latter, additional food, water, overnight sleeping bags, rain gear and/or cold weather gear will make the extra wait just an inconvenient adventure instead of a regrettable experience.

Final tip
Use the restroom (or woods) before you board; most of these planes contain no facilities. And one last note; Make absolutely sure that someone back home knows where you are going and when to expect you back out of the woods.

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