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AdventureFlying

Five Days in Sydney

June 6, 2017 — by Casey Allen0

Sometimes I work hard – day after day operating long flights with hardly enough time to rest, much less do anything else, in between. Other times though, my job feels like a vacation. This was definitely one of those times!

Learning

Pale Blue Dot

January 8, 2017 — by Casey Allen0

I was reminded today of this image and accompanying narration by Carl Sagan. The image is a photograph of Earth taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe from a distance of 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles). Without doubt a great distance for us to comprehend, but in the realm of astronomical distances, this is just outside of our solar system – practically still in the same cosmic neighborhood. However, in the photo the Earth occupies less than one pixel. Especially together with the poetic narration of Sagan, it’s difficult to not feel humbled by this image of our tiny home.

“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

[…] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994

Learning

An Introduction To Provisional Knowledge

October 15, 2016 — by Casey Allen0

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At the time of writing, the United States is less than a month away from electing a new president. It doesn’t take much knowledge of politics to see that this election is extremely contentious – both in terms of of the candidates and the rhetoric surrounding their campaigns. Without commenting too much on the actual politics, I would like to use this time in our country’s history to illustrate a need for developing a sense of provisional knowledge.

Strong opinions are ubiquitous in our society and definitely in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. These opinions are often presented to us as facts. Facts which are meant to either affirm our own opinions or change our beliefs to align with the presenter. Here is an example from the Presidential Campaign: In August, Donald Trump tweeted the followingscreen-shot-2016-10-15-at-12-17-05 “Inner-city crime is reaching record levels. African-Americans will vote for Trump because they know I will stop the slaughter going on!”  It’s a catchy tweet, and Trump has used similar statements about crime as a part of his platform in the race. The danger here, however, is that what Mr. Trump said was undeniably false. Most categories of crime have been on a steady decline since the early 1990’s. However, if the viewer of that tweet didn’t follow up on this statement, they may accept it as fact and therefore have the belief that inner-city crime is reaching record levels.

Moving away from politics and towards the field of ethics (I’m using this term broadly to describe the concept of right and wrong conduct), I am going to assume that as conscientious humans, our goal is to have accurate beliefs. That is, we want our beliefs to reflect facts about the world around us so that our own personal reality is an accurate one. This is useful to us because our opinions are tied to our morals and our concepts of ethical behavior.

What I would like to suggest is that the best way to have accurate beliefs (upon which you can form your own opinions, morals, values, etc) is through provisional knowledge. I believe that the scientific method provides an excellent picture of this principle. bartolomeu_velho_1568For example, during much of history the accepted astronomical model was geocentric (with the Earth at the center of the universe and the other planets and stars moving around it). It wasn’t until the 16th century that a German astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus presented a mathematical heliocentric model (where the Sun is at the center of our solar system, with the other planets orbiting around it). Shortly afterwards, this heliocentric model was confirmed through observation and further refined by other scientists. Today it would seem silly to use any other model for our solar system. And this is the power of provisional knowledge (and science itself) – it does not purport that it’s beliefs are the ultimate and accurate picture of reality to be followed until the end of time. It instead asserts that it’s knowledge is the best we have at this time. Given new, more accurate information, it will always change and adapt. In this way it is truly a method, and not dogmatic belief.

I believe this is how we should treat our own opinions and beliefs. The strength of our opinions should be in direct proportion to our confidence in the knowledge of the subjects to which they relate. It’s okay to not have a strong opinion on something you are not well informed on. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”. It’s okay to admit that your opinion is provisional – that you have formed it from the information you have been given. And it’s definitely okay (and I would say it is a moral responsibility) to change either the strength or the nature of your opinion when new information is presented to you.

Especially in times like this one surrounding our presidential election, I believe that advocating for provisional knowledge is important. The election and accompanying media-hype tend to advocate for the opposite. It’s therefore incumbent upon us to be people of reason and measure who avoid polarization and dogmatism. There is obviously a lot to say on this subject. It’s one that I am passionate about and that I will likely write more about in the future. For now though, I would like to leave you with this one point to consider – It is often difficult for us to examine our own beliefs. It’s at the heart of introspection and it makes us feel vulnerable. But I will assert that if our goal is to be the best, most moral people we can be, then we must do just this. We must consider our knowledge and beliefs to be provisional and be open to changing them when new, more accurate information is presented to us.

Learning

Happy Autumnal Equinox

September 22, 2016 — by Casey Allen0

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Astronomy is one of my hobbies and I enjoy celebrating celestial events. For me, it’s a great way to keep my life in perspective and to continually renew my sense of wonder about life and our minuscule part that we play in the universe. I also find it incredible that humans have have used celestial events to measure the seasons for thousands of years – most of them doing this strictly by observation, without knowledge of fundamental traits such as the heliocentricity of our solar system.

Today marks a celestial phenomenon that happens twice each year: the equinox. The equinox is a way to mark the changing of the seasons, in the case of today’s equinox it’s the end of summer and the beginning of fall for the northern hemisphere as well as the start of spring for the Southern Hemisphere.

earth-modelThe reason for the name “equinox” has to do with the geographical position (GP) of the sun. The suns GP is the location on Earth where the sun is directly overhead. This position changes in latitude throughout the year, moving from its highest latitude at the Tropic of Cancer to its lowest latitude at the Tropic of Capricorn. On the equinox, the GP of the sun is directly over Earth’s equator. The length of daytime and nighttime are approximately equal on this day.

I suppose this is all a very circuitous way of saying “happy first day of fall!”

Learning

Three Lessons for the Digital Age I Learned From Studying Buddhism

September 6, 2016 — by Casey Allen0

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This is an article I wrote for Medium a couple years back. I’m usually not much for self-help type articles with clickbait titles, although there is no denying their popularity on the interwebs. However, I think in this case, my level of expertise on the subject really hit the sweet spot for this type of article, so I decided to run with it. Enjoy!

Recently I spent an evening with a friend at the Zen Center in Detroit, Michigan where she is a student. Having done a bit of studying about Buddhism, I was excited to learn from someone who was actually living the Buddhist life. My friend gave me a tour of the center, we sat for an hour long meditation, and then ate dinner together at a Japanese-style low table. After dinner I was struck with what a pleasant and uncomplicated day it had been. I began to realize that Buddhism holds within itself many antidotes to the conditions which have become endemic of modern society. We have all become familiar with these ailments, at least to some extent – finding it difficult focus long enough to do things we used to enjoy such as to read a book or even carrying on an in-depth conversation without checking our phones, feeling a constant sense of urgency and need to search for the next distraction. Despite being more connected to the outside world, experiencing a feeling of loneliness and of being misunderstood or uncared for. Sitting down in front of a computer only to realize hours later that you have been browsing for so long that you don’t remember why you got on the internet in the first place. 

1. There is a lot of richness in the present moment. Think about the last time you walked somewhere. My guess is that, even if it was a short walk, you probably had your cellphone in hand. Maybe you tried to call a friend to fill the time. Maybe you checked your Facebook, then posted a picture on Instagram. Or if you are like me, as a last resort, maybe you just kind of flipped through the apps on your phone searching restlessly for something to occupy your time. As a society, we have become increasingly uncomfortable with phone lookersthe present moment. We try rather successfully to escape it through a constant bombardment of notifications, messages, apps, etc. The Buddhist principle of mindfulness tells us that we are escaping the most important moments of our lives. Mindfulness has started to gain some traction in the U.S. over the last few years – there was the recent Time magazine cover story, loads of new books and apps, and even recent promotion by large corporations as a way to foster increased productivity and focus. 

In essence, mindfulness means to have a full awareness of the present moment. To practice mindfulness is to take a break from the busyness that has become our modi operandi and to focus only on the present. This can take the form of a sitting meditation or it can just mean eliminating distractions for a few moments to enjoy whatever it is you are doing right now. In fact, I would say that the most important point of mindfulness is that it can be practiced at any time, in any situation. All that has to be done is to give full attention to the task that is being done. Take again the walking example. Perhaps you’re walking to your car after leaving work. Instead of checking your phone, try focusing your attention on “just walking.” Feel your shoes making contact with the ground. Notice how your legs feel as they carry you forward. Feel any breeze or sensation of wind against your skin and clothes. It’s deceptively difficult. Watch your breath as it naturally changes to the pace of your steps. At first your brain will probably protest and your thoughts will drift to something more “exciting.” Just gently bring your attention back to the aspects of walking. Once you have practiced this a bit and get used to “just walking” you will see how much richness there is in the details of walking. You will begin to notice aspects that perhaps you never saw before. It is exciting to see life through new eyes, with the renewed wonder of a child. Being content with the present is a fundamental part of happiness, and one that our addiction to technology can strip from us by creating endless distractions that we perceive as important. Practicing mindfulness is a way of retraining your brain to focus and become more comfortable with the life that surrounds you.


2. We are all connected.
A message of kindness. The Buddhist teachings say that all beings on Earth are interconnected. flowerThich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and educator, relates this concept in a way that is easily understood: “…looking into a flower, you can see that the flower is made of many elements that we can call non-flower elements. When you touch the flower, you touch the cloud. You cannot remove the cloud from the flower, because if you could remove the cloud from the flower, the flower would collapse right away. You don’t have to be a poet in order to see a cloud floating in the flower, but you know very well that without the clouds there would be no rain and no water for the flower to grow. So cloud is part of flower, and if you send the element cloud back to the sky, there will be no flower. Cloud is a non-flower element. And the sunshine…you can touch the sunshine here. If you send back the element sunshine, the flower will vanish. And sunshine is another non-flower element. And earth, and gardener…if you continue, you will see a multitude of non-flower elements in the flower.”  
At the Zen Center when greeting another person it is customary to bow towards them. This is a way of saying “I respect you and see a part of myself in you.” I think the more standard way to look at the world is a dichotomy of “us and them.” We emotionally distance ourselves from strangers, people we don’t like, and problems that are not directly affecting us. Inter-being is a twist on the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  It means not just to treat, but to view others as an extension of yourself. It’s the ultimate call for the kindness of humanity, both towards each other and also the environment in which we inhabit. Perhaps spoken to humanity, the message of interconnectedness feels like a platitude. But considered individually, it’s a call for personal change and for deep consideration about the nature of our realities.

3. Use teachings as a guide, not as ultimate truth. The Buddha said to use his teachings as you would a raft. Use them to aid you in getting to the other side of the pond, or in other words, as a means to an end. He didn’t want anything that he said to be taken for dogma that was written in stone and could not be reinterpreted or changed. This is a powerful lesson for the importance of critical thinking in the digital age. It’s so easy to find an “expert” opinion on a subject. Just check YouTube for a video tutorial, Wikipedia for a textual lesson, or Google to instantly see millions of search results from all over the web. There are obvious benefits to this – the wealth of information at our fingertips would have been unfathomable in any era of history. The negative aspect though is that we are losing our ability to think for ourselves, to think critically and deeply, forming our own opinions. To me, this teaching of the Buddha contrasts beautifully to the teachings of the Abrahamic that many of us are more familiar with. The ability to think and reason for ourselves is the most powerful tool we have to make forward progress both outwardly through technology and scientific advancement and inwardly through our own moral endeavors. In his book Walden, Heney David Thoreau wrote about cultivating these abilities “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.” 

Seagull mindfulnessIn studying Buddhist teachings, I am struck by the relevance of what I have read. I am not advocating that all people should become Buddhist. I am, however, promoting more deep thought about our social mores and ethical beliefs. We are often so steeped in our collective ethos that for positive change to occur, we must learn to be observant of our most basic assumptions. It is this type of thought and observation that makes Buddhism so important to our society.

Flying

Approach to Dominica

August 27, 2016 — by Casey Allen0

I made this post about Dominica back in 2011 on my aviation blog. Given my recent visit to the island, I thought my former perspective worth sharing. Here is a re-creation the post:

Time: 0815

Position: Approaching Dominica from the west, descending through 15,000 feet MSL.

The Captain and I, along with 2 Flight Attendants and 36 passengers in the back have just started our descent into the small island of Dominica, which is in the Lesser Antilles, smashed between the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. If Tortola is the high-class sailing island where Richard Branson hangars his jet, Dominica is the rainforest-covered island where reptiles thought to have been extinct for hundreds of millions of years can still be spotted. Tortola is Jimmy Buffett, Dominica is the Jurassic Park theme song.

This is also my first time in Dominica, and as we descend further and the island comes into better view, I can’t help but wonder what 36 people are doing flying to this prehistoric-looking place. My current theory is that they are all geologists, botanists, biologists, some kind of “ist” coming to study the lush landscape. There are usually even fewer passengers occupying our 64 seat aircraft, but yesterday the flights were all canceled due to weather, so today we are making a special rescue run to accommodate the “ists.” Airlines don’t usually cancel flights for weather unless it’s pretty extreme, but in Dominica the clouds have to be above the mountaintops to land.

IMG_9903The approach goes something like this: descend towards the northeast side of the island, aim for the highest mountain until a small valley presents itself right in the middle of the island. Hook a right into the valley as the passengers become increasingly concerned they are about to fly into a mountain. Follow the valley southbound and look for the Brachiosaurus head poking through the tree canopy. Passing him it’s flaps 30, landing gear down and swing left to line up with the runway on final. Dodge the occasional Pterodactyl gliding past and touch down on the runway 9 numbers. Be quick on the reverse thrust to avoid an unscheduled swimming excursion and it’s a wrap. Video tutorial attached.

Adventure

Remarkable Places: Dominica

August 26, 2016 — by Casey Allen0

Dominica Panorama
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Every so often when I am traveling, I become overwhelmed by the uniqueness of an area with a strong sense of place. Back in the summer of 2011 I started my first airline job and was based in Puerto Rico. We would carry passengers from San Juan to other islands in the West Indies. The island that quickly became my favorite destination was a small Windward Island called IMG_2122Dominica. As Caribbean Islands go, it felt unique to me – untamed and relatively untainted by tourism. It has the nickname “The Nature Island” because the majority of it is still covered in mountainous rainforest. I relished the legs that we flew to Dominica, at the time mostly for its challenging and scenic approach to landing (see separate post with video). Only once, on a rare set of days off was I was able to spend a little time exploring the island and doing some hiking; but it has since been high on my list of places to revisit.

On this trip, I went to Dominica to meet my friend Shiv, who was doing some business at the medical school located on the island. It was planned as a short stay of only two days, but Shiv and I have a motto when we travel together – Make it happen! We try to avoid giving excuses for why we can’t do something and instead find unique ways to make great things happen. This trip, that involved Shiv making a last minute flight change so we pack in both SCUBA diving and an all day hike to a boiling lake.

IMG_6046For me the highlight of the trip was the hike to Boiling Lake. The lake, which is actually a flooded fumarole (an opening in the Earth’s crust that emits steam and gas, in this case heating the overlying water) is the second largest of its kind in the world. The only way to reach the lake is an 8.1 mile hike, potentially as spectacular as the lake itself. We took the advice of the locals and hired a guide, as the trail is not well defined and it would be very easy to get lost. Starting at 1,690 feet of elevation in the Titou Gorge, the path undulates and winds through a rainforest with huge tropical trees before descending to a river where we stopped to eat some breakfast.

IMG_2161After the river the trail climbs steeply up a ridge that peaks at 3,168 feet. At the top we were standing right at the cloud bases, being hit by the unobstructed force of the trade winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean. The temperature was cool – about 18C, and felt refreshing combined with the breeze. It’s fascinating to me that this mountainous island creates its own weather. The northeast trade winds get pushed up the steep terrain where the moist air is cooled to its dewpoint, forming clouds and often rainshowers that feed the lush vegetation on the leeward side of the island. Looking off in the distance we could see steam rising up from the trees surrounding the boiling lake.

IMG_2170The trail continued along the ridge before descending into what is called the Valley of Desolation. Almost all of the vegetation quickly disappears and is replaced by rock and loose gravel covering small streams of hot water and sulfuric gas.

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Past the valley another climb through a forested area leads to the lake. The sight of the lake was like nothing I had ever seen. The water was a pale blue and was vigorously boiling from the center of the lake. Great amounts of steam were rising up from the water and being blown towards us by the wind. The effect was a bit ominous and I joked that it seemed a perfect location for a ritualistic sacrifice! We found a large boulder to perch on and ate our lunches while we watched the water boil.

IMG_6077On the hike back we stopped for a few moments and relaxed in a heated pool. Aside from the lush scenery, one of my favorite parts was the feeling of solitude. During the whole nine hour hike, we only passed two other people on the trail.

Click on the photo gallery above to see other parts of our stay in Dominica.

 

Flying

The First, First Officer

August 19, 2016 — by Casey Allen

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IMG_9825On August 15, 2011 I (along with Ian) took my first airline job. Almost immediately I felt as though I had been thrust into an unfamiliar world. I already knew how to fly a plane – I had been a licenced pilot for eight years. But the entirety of the “airline world” with its complex and sometimes daunting operations was a complete mystery to me. I remember walking through the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in my uniform after completing my first ever training cycle and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the details. The airlines do an excellent job preparing their new-hires to safely operate an airliner. But there is almost no information exchanged in preparation for how to survive in your new “airline life.” In December of 2011 I was based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, still feeling very new and struggling to adapt and learn the intricacies of my job. I was learning that one large piece of being an airline pilot was waiting around – sometimes in airports or airplanes, other times in crashpads or temporary housing. In my down time I decided to create a blog to document my life as a new First Officer. I wanted to give other new airline pilots some insight into how it felt to be a severely junior pilot at a regional airline. Throughout the years as I gained more experience I often wrote about how both my perspective on and my situation in the airlines changed, and in turn how my lifestyle adapted.

Recently I started a new job at what is now my third airline. I am no longer the industry newbie that I was back in 2011. In the creation of this website, I decided it was time to leave The First, First Officer blog behind. Below is the final post from that blog, which is incidentally a narrative of my last flight at my second airline. If you’d like to check out any of my other writings from 2011 – 2016, here is a link to The First, First Officer.

-Casey

Last Flight

IMG_1422Time: 1730 local
Location: Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport

The crew and I have just arrived at the gate from our overnight in Montreal. Today is a special day, one I’ve been looking forward to for a few months – my last flight with JungleJet Airlines!

We arrived to Montreal late last night, after 0100. I wanted to make the most of my last trip so I slept fast and was up at 0700 to go explore. It’s feeling like spring in Montreal, and even the morning temperature was a mild 8 degrees Celsius. I walked uptown to a park that overlooks the city before getting on the metro to meet a friend for breakfast. As we chatted at the restaurant I felt the same feeling I’ve been experiencing the last few weeks: apprehension. I’m excited to be moving on and furthering my career, but my fondness for JungleJet has engendered a bit of sadness to be leaving. It’s the first job I truly enjoyed showing up to work for – leaving feels bittersweet.

At the gate in Montreal the agent advises us that Newark is in a ground stop and our expected departure time isn’t for another 3 hours. I think to myself that it’s kind of a fitting end to being based in Newark! We board the plane and radio the tower to verify the delay. There’s a line of weather just west of New York and it’s blocking arrivals and departures at all 3 of the major NY airports. The controller says an update will come out on the hour. Normally I would be irritated and anxious to get going so I can make my commute, but today I am content to wait a bit longer.

1800. Air traffic control issues the update that the ground stop is cancelled. Clearance gives us a wheels up time at 1830, so we board quickly and and start towards the runway. Things change fast in the NY airspace system and sometimes luck is on your side.

IMG_04661830. Positive rate, gear up. We lift off from runway 24L with a light load of 32 people. The sun has just set on our right, but with altitude the sky brightens and turns a deep orange color as the light is filtered through the shade of stratus clouds. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever tire of these picturesque scenes I am treated to so often.

1845. In cruise the captain and I enjoy easy conversation – something I have truly taken pleasure in throughout my time at JungleJet. Meeting interesting people, both in the cockpit and on overnights, has been an unforeseen benefit of this job. The flight deck becomes host to many interesting conversations – sometimes hilariously funny, sometimes deeply personal, and pretty much everything in between.

1910. I call for the In Range checklist as we descend through 18,000 feet. We reset the altimeters to the local setting and I give an arrival briefing for runway 22L at Newark. The storms have all moved east now and the field is reporting calm winds and VFR conditions. The airspace is relatively quiet and the controller clears us direct to Teterboro airport for the visual approach. The lights of New York City are easy to spot arriving from any direction. I move my gaze a bit closer, finding both the Teterboro and Newark airports before disconnecting the autopilot to hand fly the approach. A few minutes later the controller asks us to slow to 180 knots and I call for Flaps 9 as I bank right to line up with the runway.

1920. The mains touch down on 22L and I click the thrust levers back to deploy the reversers. Leaving the runway I run the after landing flow, thinking how natural these movements have become. After so many hours a plane starts to feel like an extension of your own body. All the levers and buttons are right where you expect them to be.

1935. After the engine shutdown checklist is run I take one more look around the cockpit before gathering my bag, saying goodbye to the crew, and leaving the JungleJet for the last time. I then unceremoniously scramble over to terminal C and catch the last flight back home. Making it home takes precedence, even over nostalgia.

IMG_9739Epilogue

I created this blog (The First, First Officer) in 2011 when I was hired at my first airline job. There were a number of aviation blogs I followed at the time, but none of them were written from the perspective of a beginner in the industry. The bottom of the seniority list as a new-hire First Officer is a scary place to be, and I thought it of value to document the experiences I was having seen through this beginners lens. I know I’m not always the most diligent at updating this blog, but I do hope at least to some extent it has served as a source of both entertainment and information, for any interested reader, but especially for the new First Officer on the very bottom of the seniority list wondering what they’re in for. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I’ve been in the airline industry for almost 5 years. I can still clearly remember my first days in San Juan flying the ATR – new experiences pouring in at an overwhelming rate. For me, it’s time now to once again be that FO at the very bottom – learning a new aircraft, a new pilot contract, and new routes and destinations. It’s both daunting and exciting, but like most of life, it is best experienced when savored for its uniqueness.