Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Give Me A Challenge...

"...because I know also life is a shuttle.
I am in haste; go along with me..."- Shakespeare

The Date: January 28th, 1986.
The Time: 11:39am EDT
The Place: John F. Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, Florida.
Ambient Temperature:  36°F / 2°C

Close your eyes, imagine…
It feels like an abnormally pretty cold morning under a clear blue sky as you are standing in your privileged seat in the KSC Visitor Complex, but the excitement and thrill that surrounds you is contagious and counterbalances this fact by warming up the blood in your veins. Your body shakes a little bit and you are not sure if it is due to the low temperature or the spectacular moment in history that you are about to witness. A couple of yards ahead of you, the digital countdown clock shows that in less than 30 seconds the horizon will fill up with light, smoke and a beautiful roar that will tear through  everyone’s heart. Space Shuttle Challenger in its tenth mission and a heroic crew of seven astronauts (Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ronal McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Payload Specialists Greg Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe) are about lift off into the final frontier… space. You probably don’t know much about most of the crew, but you have heard about Christa in the TV and the newspapers: She is an American teacher from New Hampshire, selected from over 10,000 applicants for the “NASA’s Teacher in Space Project” and she is about to become the first teacher in space.

The unemotional male voice that is heard through the speakers around the complex, dictates the time remaining for the launch, second-by- second: “T-minus 15 seconds…” and the people around you are standing up, eyes into the horizon where the miniscule shape of the spacecraft, its enormous orange colored external tank and its two powerful engines (known as Solid Rocket Boosters) stand proudly in the Launchpad. “T-minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, we have main engines start, 4, 3, 2, 1 and liftoff! Liftoff of the 25th Space Shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower!”. The moment is something that you wish you could live in slow motion, as you can feel the ground beneath your feet trembling, the sound of the engines scratching the lower layers of our terrestrial atmosphere (you can only compare it to the fingers of God scratching some kind of celestial blackboard), and a beautifully drawn white arch formed by the fumes of the engines that grows taller and taller by the second. The witnesses are so moved by the image, cheering, screams of excitement fill the cold air: “Fly baby fly!”, “Go Challenger! Go!”. Both hands in the air, jumping, hugging each other.

 In your own mind you start reflecting on the images of what you are seeing. In a delicate small world in the vast ocean of space, in between all the noise inside the madhouse of a very young specie, unsettled, unwise, unable to unify itself as one, there is that flash of light climbing up the stairs of heaven, with seven souls that represent a small glimpse of our brilliant future, our capability for greatness, all that is right about us, all the purpose of our existence, all the brilliant minds and brilliant aspirations. As the ship climbs through the sky, your eyes fill with tears of happiness, for you are a witness of our birth as a better specie. The very best that mankind has to offer, our main gift as a figment of God’s Creation, accelerating from zero to a speed of almost 28,968 kilometers per hour (18,000 miles per hour), a speed nine times as fast as the average rifle bullet, accomplishing our childhood dreams, building our hopes for tomorrow. Those heroes on board that magic carpet are about to change the future, our future, and of those who will live after us.

“Velocity 2,257 feet per second. Altitude 4.3 nautical miles. Downrange 3 nautical miles” the PAO’s calmed voice says, but you don’t hear him for your mind is lost inside those deep thoughts of wonder. “Challenger, Go At Throttle Up” a different voice says, “Roger, Go At Throttle Up” someone replies… and in a flash of light you are woken up. The beautiful symmetric white arc is now interrupted by a ball of fire spreading through the sky, a distant explosive sound gives you a slight hint that something is not normal. “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation……Obviously a major malfunction….”.  Just like that, Space Shuttle Challenger and its crew are gone.

The post-accident investigation revealed that a chain of events that happened due to peer pressure for NASA, miscommunication and secrecy of the contractors that designed the Solid Rocket Boosters, weather factors, overlooked little details, and lack of organization were key factors in this tragic accident. Lessons never to be forgotten that lead to big organizational changes inside NASA and the Space Transport System program. It became a personal matter for every person that was part of the team that makes spaceflight happen and some individuals never recovered as they were directly responsible for the loss of life. But, most of them refocused their pain on trying to figure out what went wrong and how to make sure that it would not happen again. “Failure is not an option” and Challenger’s loss would not be in vain.

There is a big lesson that needs to be learned from this, and it applies to everybody: No matter how big the challenge is, or how small the odds are, there is always a way to straighten the path in order to rise above, for there is no such thing as failure as long as we keep fighting to overcome adversity. Per Aspera Ad Astra…Through Hardship to the Stars.

In the aftermath of Challenger’s disaster, President Ronald Reagan communicated to his nation through these beautiful words:

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But, we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the member of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved an impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Perhaps this is the greatest gift that our humble specie has….our capability to embrace new challenges, to be amazed by the Universe that surrounds us, to go above and beyond, to explore like heroes.

Now close your eyes again.

Today is the bright blue day of September 29th, 1988. You are standing by the moistened sand in the beautiful beach of Jetty Park, a few miles south of the Kennedy Space Center. The sea breeze whispers sounds of adventure, destiny, and new opportunities. You have changed, we all did, for adversity won’t stop us from prevailing. In a nearby handheld radio you hear a countdown “14, 13, 12, 11, 10, we are go for main engines start, 7, 6, and main engines start, 3, 2, 1, zero, and liftoff!!! Liftoff! Americans return to space as Discovery clears the tower!”. In the horizon beyond a line of trees, Space Shuttle Discovery rises like a Phoenix from the ashes into a brave new world, changing the course of history, of us, teaching us that we evolved for bigger and better things, breaking the sound barrier as an anthem for our true purposes and the things that really matter. “Go Discovery! Keep climbing!” it is time to become a star in the eternal river of time and we go up with you.

Monday, January 27, 2014

There is No Such Thing as a Meaningless Little Detail

Those first flights stick to your mind in a way that a very small amount of other life experiences are able to accomplish. As the amount of hours increase and we get more used to being up there, the places, the faces, the flights and the aircraft start to blend with each other, unless something out of the ordinary happens (I don’t use the word extraordinary because, at least for me, every single flight is like magic). But that doesn’t happen with the origins of your aviation career. I can remember the different instructors that I had and which places I flew to with them, the check pilots, the maneuvers, the recommendations, the yelling, the mess ups, and of course, when they would discreetly congratulate me for a good job. I was a lucky guy; I think all of them always set a good example as professional pilots, and they never allowed me to go below the highest standards in flight training. When the time came to follow their footsteps and I became a flight instructor, I wanted to live up to what they expected from me.

I tried to be the best but there are some lessons that they just could not teach me, things that I needed to learn by myself, things that I had overlooked.

I was assigned to teach foreign students from China how to fly, and after earning their pilot certificates they would go back to their home country and start training to pilot airliners. It is my belief that things happen for a reason, and this was something that I needed in order to further my knowledge, values and career. Even though the Chinese culture is extremely beautiful it is also very different to the one of those of us who grew up in the “Western” side of the map, and the little details that made it so different were also the ones that I initially didn’t considered as a big factor in their training. I tried to play the “cool guy”; the one that focuses on trying to keep the flying fun, not yell, give you as many chances as you needed to, and to promote your passion for flying. The students enjoyed flying with me indeed; they would relax, I wouldn’t scream at them if they messed up, they would look outside and enjoy that rare perspective of the world from their very privileged seat…..I always thought that I was a doing a good job when it came to complying with the sacred “Fundamentals of Instructing”.

 I was on my way to failure, sending them to those check rides for a simple reason: I didn’t think that it was too important to try to understand their culture and the way they learn in that country, I was just fine respecting it.

They did pretty good in their examinations during the initial part of the training, but as the level of complexity on their maneuvers and procedures increased, my guys started to fail on things that I was one hundred percent positive that they were proficient at. They would go up for a review flight with me, they would ace the maneuvers, they would go back up with the examiner and they would fail again.  I couldn’t understand what was going on! Did I have a bad understanding of the Practical Test Standards? Did I have a bad eye to evaluate my students’ performance? Or worse…..Was my criteria as an instructor, as a Pilot In Command and as a leader off? My friend and roommate (who was also an instructor in the Chinese group) had a 100% pass rate, so I decided to see what the magic trick was, and  I would seat in the backseat during one of his flights to see what the heck was going on.

The experience was priceless; I had never heard so much yelling inside an aircraft before! My friend Terrance had no mercy with these guys. He was the definition of strict: zero tolerance, he was not there for a joy flight, he was there to turn these scared students into professional airline pilots. He would ask questions, they would mess the answer up, he would look at me from his seat and say to me: “Did you hear what this dummy just said?” and then he would say something to them like: “You are making a fool of yourself right now”. Terrance could see the big picture of things, he would comprehend how Chinese culture and learning processes worked. All that my students needed was a strict hand to straighten up their path to the skies, because that is how teachers and mentors work back in their country. I was “too cool”, and they wouldn’t take me seriously. I was stressing my bosses out, making my guys feel frustrated, I was losing self confidence as an instructor, just because I thought of a little detail as unimportant. I fixed them up, even though they probably thought that I had some kind of bipolar personality disorder after the “cool guy” simply vanished overnight.

Then, once I finally became a First Officer flying originally the Embraer ERJ-145, this special attention to the small stuff proved to be a valuable tool in order to improve my effectiveness as Second-In-Command, not only in the operational aspect, but also in the social dynamics of a flight crew. One of my flight instructors, Chuck Healey (a former American Airlines Captain) always emphasized to me the importance of taking care of my fellow crew members, cause at the end, when we are away from home for so many days, they become pretty much our family and that is the way that I like to look at it. By paying that special attention in order to make them feel safe, confident and protected, the team will work efficiently, with no barriers in communication, they will all look after each other, improving the safety margin in all flights. In the operational aspect, learning and embracing the little details of flight training, the manuals, the standard operational procedures, crew resource management and creating the habit to do so will be part of your signature as a professional pilot, it will help you to develop a good criteria, and a clear thinking process for whenever out of the ordinary situations show up.

I have focused specifically in aviation but paying attention to the “meaningless little details” in  everyday’s terrestrial life will also improve your work, familiar and social environment, as we live in a world of connections and networks, of teams and decisions, high competence in order to achieve more and reach higher places. So give it a shot and try to focus a little more in the things that you tend to overlook daily and notice the difference.

I really enjoyed instructing, but my definite goal was to become an airline pilot. “Sweating the small stuff” (as former ISS Commander Chris Hadfield would say) has helped me to live up to the expectations of all the instructors and mentors that I have had, and to become a better professional. It is a matter of high discipline, but more on that later. The lessons that I learned from being an instructor at Delta Connection Academy (now Aerosim Flight Academy) are extremely meaningful to me and my career; I am certain that I will never forget them.

For those of you who are starting and those of you who haven’t really thought about it: Paying special attention to the little details will make a difference down the road, as it will improve your piloting skills, your decision making process, and your leadership. I feel very fortunate about the fact that I learned this lesson when this adventured had just started.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Lessons From A Spacefaring Specie.

Good morning everyone,

Ever since I was a little boy, I heard about space. Just like any other kid of my age, my dad would tell me stories before going to bed in order to keep me and my brother quiet and relaxed, but these were not your average fairy tale stories about dragons, medieval knights or other popular anecdotes; my father would talk to us about astronauts, spaceships, extraterrestrial beings, the stories about Captain James T. Kirk and his outstanding crew on board the U.S.S. Enterprise and their five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. My brother and I were hooked to science-fiction stories.

As time passed by and I was able to start perceiving the textures of reality, real spaceflight started to capture my imagination. I would watch every single Space Shuttle launch in our computer, I would read everything that I could about the space race, Mars and beyond, Wernher Von Braun, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts, etc. I was never too discreet about my passion, but I was realistic...unfortunately, my country does not promote scientific projects or partnerships with other Space Agencies and attempting to become an astronaut seemed impractical . Call me a quitter for that matter, but I had other passions too, and one of them prevailed above all, and this was the fantastic world of civil aviation.

It has been a while since my dad would tell me about The War of the Worlds, From the Earth to the Moon, The X-Files, etc. But I've never stopped thinking about all the people that has helped humankind to go beyond Earth's mesosphere. Their stories of success and failure are heartwarming, true inspiration full of life lessons on teamwork, leadership, discipline, bravery and effort. And I believe that it is possible to translate all these values into our daily existence, and specially for those of us who fly.

After the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, and after facing a series of challenges and crisis, Eugene Francis "Gene" Kranz (NASA's Flight Director for a large amount of historic space voyages) and other NASA personnel developed a chart called "The Foundations of Mission Control" . I have take the freedom to rewrite them for those us who are part of the ever challenging civil aviation industry. These are core values that will clarify the path ahead for those of you who are starting, and it will help those of us who are walking it already to regain focus. If we truly believed in them and we compromise ourselves to live by these ideas, we will guarantee a beautiful evolution into a better, more professional and safe aviation world.

Foundations of the Professional Pilot 


- Discipline: Being able to follow as well as lead, knowing that we must master ourselves
before we can master our task.

- Competence: There being no substitute for total preparation and complete dedication,
for aviation will not tolerate the careless or indifferent.

- Confidence: Believing in ourselves as well as others, knowing that we must master fear
and hesitation before we can succeed.

- Responsibility: Realizing that it cannot be shifted to others, for it belongs to each one
of us; we must answer for what we do, or fail to do.

-Toughness: Taking a stand when we must; to try again, and again, even if it means
following a more difficult path.

-Teamwork: Respecting and utilizing the ability of others, realizing that we work toward
a common goal, for success depends on the efforts of all.



Blue skies and Happy Flights!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Cleared for Takeoff

"The Sky Calls To Us..."-Carl Sagan.

Hi there!

My name is Saul, I am a First Officer (Copilot) for one of the most important airlines in Latin America. Ever since my mind allows me to recall, aviation and the sky have been my endless passions, driving most of the goals and visions in my life. It has been an endeavor worth sharing, and this fact has lead me to this place, where I know I will be able to reach people around the globe that looks up into the deep blue just like I do.

In the later years, my interest has gain a more specific approach; flight training and aviation safety, human factors, team building, professional growth and mentoring have captivated me since the beginning of my career, so you will be reading about these subjects a lot in this blog. Also, I am a big enthusiast of Science and Space (Astronautics, Space Flight, Astronomy and the wonders of the Universe), and music is the escape from the airway congested thoughts in my head (I have been playing the bass with my alternative rock band for the last 10 years) so you will definitely hear from that in here.

I invite you to join me in this journey, in my trips, in my flights and inside my deepest thoughts. Ask me questions and share what you think, I will be happy to get to know you better and be a part your skyfaring adventure.

Blue Skies and Happy Flights!