Thursday, March 31, 2011


Yesterday the Washington Post printed a mildly scary story about an Alaska Airlines jet landing at National Airport (I know it's Reagan National, but all pilots call it "National") and suddenly zooming sharply away in what pilots call a "go-around," startling passengers and spectators on the ground.

Another airplane, the Post said, was on the runway. It had just landed but hadn't yet turned off onto a taxiway, so the tower ordered the incoming jet to abort its landing and go around the circuit for another try. Safety first, you know.

If it hadn't been for an air traffic controller falling asleep in the wee hours at National last week, the event wouldn't have been a story. But travelers are nervous, and newspapers have to make money, and an enterprising reporter capitalized on an opportunity.

The reporter admitted that at National Airport go-arounds happen a lot -- ten to 20 times a month -- because traffic there is so congested that the tower has to space incoming planes tightly. Sometimes the controllers' timing is slightly off and an incoming plane follows the preceding one a little too closely. Solution: If there's any doubt, any doubt at all, the tower (or the captain of the plane about to land) calls a go-around and things are rejuggled. Nobody is endangered -- not in the slightest.

Those incidents never make the news.

Some years ago I was aboard a United 737 on short final at National. Less than a quarter of a mile from touchdown, the pilot suddenly poured on the coal, cleaned up the landing gear and roared away. The woman next to me grabbed the seat rest and gasped, no doubt thinking we had escaped death by the skin of our chins. The guy across the aisle chuckled and shook his head. He'd been there before.

Nor was I perturbed, because as a small plane pilot I had repeatedly been trained to perform that maneuver almost from the first day of flight instruction.

"Always keep your eyes on that runway," said Tom, my instructor, "and expect somebody to surprise you. The second you think something's not right, shove in that throttle and get the hell outta there."

Again and again, even when the airport was deserted except for us, Tom would clap my leg just as I lifted the plane's nose to touch down on the mains and shout "Go around!"

Pilots are trained never to relax in the landing pattern but to stay alert, keeping a hand lightly on the throttle, ready to ram the ball to the wall at the slightest sign of potential danger.

During 15 years and more than 1,300 hours in the cockpit, I was forced to perform more than a dozen actual go-arounds. Once an airplane landed well ahead of me but turned around and back-taxied down the runway, its pilot oblivious to incoming traffic. More than once a student pilot holding in the pocket failed to look up to check incoming airplanes before taxiing onto the numbers for takeoff.

Several times animals -- deer, coyotes and once a magnificent elk -- sauntered onto the runway when I was on short final.

None of these go-arounds were close calls, although a passenger or two might have been a little perturbed. (I don't think I ever said "Oh shit!" with someone in the right seat. Pilots should never do that, even in mild irritation.)

And I was an amateur, a private pilot, a weekend puddle-jumper driver. Air transport pilots are even more on edge during landings, because they're responsible for scores of passengers. As I did, they train and train and train until go-arounds become second nature. (They don't have to wait for a controller's order, either.)

Go-arounds are safe. They're designed to keep you safe. Don't fret.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Coming up for air

The rumors of my demise are exaggerated, although it is true that with every passing year I slide further into decrepitude.

I have not posted on either blog for nearly two weeks because:

1. I've been very busy working to get my books' rights back from the publishers so I can republish them as e-books. (It takes the lawyers forever, and more than a few lunches, to get things done.) I've got big plans for one of them, but don't want to get ahead of events here.

2. The Lady Friend has press-ganged me into donating my labor (chiefly installing new Macs and printing labels) to her favorite cause, the Evanston Public Library Friends' new "Mighty Twig" branchette. For that matter, it has become my favorite cause, too.

3. I've been preparing lessons for my half of a Train Travel Writers and Photographers Workshop to be held October 15-21, 2011, at the Depot Inn & Suites in La Plata, Missouri. (I'm doing the writing half.) More about this later.

4. I just haven't had much to opine about lately. The goings-on in the world (Libya and Wisconsin to mention only two of them) have got me utterly befuddled. Do you need still another blogger to comment on the obvious -- that the world is going to hell in a handbasket?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The recruiter is in

Starting May 14, I'll be teaching again -- this time a writers' workshop for the Porcupine Mountains Folk School at the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park just east of Silver City in western Upper Michigan. You all are invited, especially if you live in the western UP.

Here's the prospectus:

Words and the Porkies: An informal workshop for writers with the Porcupine Mountains as the backdrop and inspiration
Time: Four Saturdays, May 14 & 21, June 4 & 11, 2011, from 10:00 a.m. to noon.
Cost: $25 includes all four Saturdays. Scholarships are available. Please inquire at registration (906-884-4188)
Description: Students will focus on writing about “The Porkies” in a broad choice of genres, including the travel article, the essay, the journal, memoir, fiction, children's stories and poetry -- whatever is comfortable for each student. There will be readings of short passages about the wilderness by famous writers and poets as well as work by Porcupine Mountains artists-in-residence. Techniques of observation and fact-gathering, including interviewing, will be discussed. Basic assignments on subjects about The Porkies will be made in consultation with the students. Student work will be read and discussed and suggestions made, but no grading will be done.

Lake of the Clouds, the Porkies' most-photographed site.
Requirements: A desire to write and the ability to use a typewriter or a computer. It is hoped that students will have access to them, as well as a printer, but some accommodation can be made for those who do not.

Special notes: A choice among short guided hikes and indoor activities will be offered to provide subjects for writing. Casual clothes and suitable shoes are recommended for the outdoor activities.

The instructor, Henry Kisor, assisted by Deborah Abbott, will be available for private consultations (included in the price) all weekend on those dates, either in person at the Folk School or via e-mail at

About the instructor: Henry Kisor is a retired literary editor of the Chicago Sun-Times as well as the author of three nonfiction books and four mystery novels. He has been a summer visitor to the Porkies since 1966. He and his wife, the children's book critic and author Deborah Abbott, spend their summers at a cabin on the shore of Lake Superior at Green, Michigan, that her father built in 1947.

Why is this workshop so inexpensive? It's a pilot project for the Friends of the Porkies Folk School, testing the waters to see if such an offering will attract people to the Porkies -- and I'm donating my time and experience.

Come on up and see us.

Falls on the Presque Isle River in the Porkies

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mention in Dispatches

Scored a modest success with one of my macrophotographs in a local contest today:

(scroll down to bottom of the page)

See here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Only two months to go

Our friend David Braithwaite, whose house lies on the shore of Lake Superior a few hundred yards west of our summer place, dropped by it today and took this photograph of the boarded-up Writer's Lair through an ice arch out on the lake. That made me realize with a pleased start that only two months remain before the Lady Friend and I move our household back north until the middle of October. Thanks, Dave.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Further adventures of 'Hang Fire'

Last week Hang Fire, the fourth in the Steve Martinez mystery series, came close to being sold to a British publisher who markets his wares in the United States. The deal-breaker was that he wanted a two-book contract, with the second book delivered within six months.

Unfortunately I can't write that fast. Two years, I said. Nope, he said. He needed to strike with the second book while the market was still hot. Or words to that effect.

So we parted with nice sentiments for each other. (He said he liked Hang Fire very much and was sorry we couldn't seal a deal.)

Yesterday Hang Fire was sent to one more publisher, and I have my fingers crossed.

It took quite a bit of work to reformat the manuscript for that new publisher. I had written it (as I had done the earlier novels) with, an excellent free word processor that reads and writes Microsoft Word files.

But the publisher's reformatting instructions are both complex and Word-oriented. I probably could have done the job with OpenOffice, but that would have meant really learning the program's command structure -- and I never had learned anything more than I needed to in order to produce a manuscript.

Stupid of me. Instead of inserting page breaks at the end of every chapter, as the new publisher demands, I had just hit the return key until I'd inserted blank lines enough to start a new chapter. (That will screw up the formatting every time you change to a different word processor.)

So I borrowed the Lady Friend's copy of Microsoft Word, imported the file, and did the reformatting. Took quite a while, especially since I also had to reformat all my em dashes (never put them within spaces!) and get rid of all tabs (which I had used to start new paragraphs).

The experience was highly instructive. No matter where Hang Fire ends up--with a publisher or self-published as an e-book--I won't have to do that sweaty stuff all over again.