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The View from Here: Never take home for granted

Mike Gangwer Published on 21 May 2010

I have just returned to Baghdad from my final leave in Alma, Michigan. During my 16-month temporary duty assignment, or TDY, I was given three two-week rest-and-recuperation breaks outside of Iraq.

The first one in May 2009 found me back home and realizing that I still have a long ways to go on my deployment.

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The second one was busy. I traveled to San Antonio. Texas, and flew my new-to-me airplane home with my flight instructor. I am not instrument-rated yet, so flying my 1977 Mooney M20J home in the winter storm season required another pilot. We flew home at 8,500 feet over a two-day period with a total of nine hours of flight time.

The Mooney is a complex airplane; a single constant speed, variable pitch prop with retractable landing gear. It has an instrument avionics panel with a Garmin moving map, a three axis autopilot and an HSI.

While home on my third leave, I flew the Mooney about 13.5 hours and enjoyed every minute of it. Like all new aircraft owners, we generally want to update some of the legacy instruments. Thus my avionics mechanic Paul is installing an engine monitor, a fuel flow instrument, an updated yoke-mounted portable moving map and an IFR digital clock. He is moving the Garmin panel instrument upwards in the radio stack, making room for a newer Mode C transponder when that day comes. We also installed a Tanis engine heater.

The aircraft was built in Kerrville, Texas. It has a service ceiling of nearly 19,000 feet, cruises at 170 knots per hour (200 miles per hour) and has a useful load of 1,000 pounds. With full fuel (64 gallons), the remaining load is just over 600 pounds, so two or three adults with some baggage or four small adults.

This is my second airplane. My first, a Piper Cherokee 180, was the one I learned to fly in, and now it lives in southern Michigan at a flight school. Someone else is learning to fly in it.

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The Mooney is a great cross-country ship. At a fuel burn of about 11 gallons per flight hour, or 18 miles per gallon, the aircraft is particularly efficient when traveling in a straight line. I generally fly using Flight Following, and thus when talking to air traffic control, I can fly VFR through Class B and C airspace thereby avoiding a less efficient disjointed route. However, avoiding clouds and moisture is an important route consideration, thus flying around weather or over the top of a storm is necessary.

I am studying for my instrument rating. My insurance costs go down, and I am able to fly through cloud decks therefore extending my options of making the flight as a pilot. Filing an IFR flight plan requires talking to air traffic control, and I already do this for safety reasons.

The airplane is hangared at the local fixed base operations, or FBO, in Alma. The hanger is unheated. But given the winters we have in the Upper Midwest, the tie down approach on the FBO ramp is very hard on an airplane. Even the avionics inside the cockpit can be degraded by ramp parking.

Fortunately, I had good flying weather this March, and our snow was already gone in central Michigan. Now, however, the aircraft panel is once again inoperative as Paul is working on instruments. I forgot to mention that I also had a new airspeed indicator installed. The old one was calibrated and dial-marked in miles per hour; the new one is knots per hour only. Almost all of our airspeed requirements are listed in knots.

For instance, on final approach, I am supposed to fly across the threshold numbers of the runway at 70 to 72 knots, or about 84 miles per hour. My stall speed is 64 knots, and when that stall horn goes off above the runway, I need to have the landing gear very near the runway surface.

While on leave, I also enjoyed a visit to the East Lansing NRCS State Office, my previous home since 2003. I was treated to a nice lunch and visit with my colleagues. I did not feel uncomfortable at all. My position with NRCS was eliminated, and others included my tasks into theirs. We talked about some of that work, and I can report the staff is doing a fine job. Yes, we can be replaced, and the work gets done.

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On Wednesday morning, March 31, Sandy drove me to the Lansing (Class C) airport and I began the 2.5 day trip back to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. I have taken this trip three times, beginning in Lansing, then Dulles (Class B) airport, then the long 12-hour flight to Kuwait City (Class B) airport. After a 10-hour layover, we enter the military side of the trip at Ali Al Salem Airbase. There, we are processed, and after breakfast we climb into the back of a U.S. Air Force C-130 aircraft for the flight into Iraq, arriving on the military side of Baghdad International Airport (Class B). Later that evening, we are transported to a military forward operating base, then one final leg to the U.S. Embassy; and we are home.

Home. Interestingly, I mentioned to several people that “home” was the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and I found myself realizing that home is a reference point. As of this writing my TDY is 14 months done with two remaining, and then I will no longer call Baghdad or Iraq home.

I do know this: For all of us serving overseas, going home on leave is important. The mental relaxation and connecting with family and friends, and for me a Mooney that begets flight, allows me to return refreshed, engaged and productive.

I know this as well … when I do go home on leave from somewhere in the world, I appreciate what home means, not so much a place or location, but where our family and friends are. That linkage is one we never take for granted. Without it, I would have had a difficult time sitting in seat 3A at KLAN, the first leg of my journey back to Iraq. PD

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
  • Email Mike Gangwer

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