Monday, January 21, 2008

Snapping back at the sky

So, today started off with a great note - or at least my cell phone's very strange ring. Crawling out of bed, I blearily opened the phone while blinking in the bright sunlight filtering into the room. Meet at the airport at noon? Sure!

Showered and dressed, breakfast thrown in the belly, I finished cleaning out the truck from the road trip and checked weather while my sister-in-law took it down to a gas station with a bike with flat tire in the back. Then off to the airport, to take advantage of their free wireless and table space to plan the trip (without someone trying to help with crayon). No matter what horror stories and grumbles have emerged from the privatization of the weather flight service stations, both contacts with them down here so far have turned up quickly a helpful, knowledgeable briefer who's willing to spell out local weather and local geography with me.

While I was flight planning, D beat me out to the airplane, and called me from the hangar. Nearly shedding paperwork, I met him there, and he plugged the airports into a program on his own laptop to see if he could cut flight time. He'd topped off the cells in the battery, and was charging it more from the jeep. (Aircraft batteries are a silent victim of the FAA's insistence on refusing to let you change anything from the original stock plane without a significant fraction of a million dollars, years of testing, and mountains of paperwork. Despite cars and motorcycles having moved on to sealed-cell batteries decades ago and now moving on to gel cel batteries that are far better, more reliable, lighter, safer, and cheaper, my vintage 70's Grumman AA-1B has to use a battery designed back then, prone to boiling over, spilling out if I pull maneuvers, and corroding whatever the acid can touch. This is a clear example of how "experimental" aviation is better, faster, cheaper, more reliable, and the source of almost all innovation in the industry.)

I called the American Yankee Association to ask her about finding her once we land at the private airport - we had agreed before I left for Sebring that I'd be down Monday, weather permitting. She hemmed and told me not to bother, and she had a 5pm meeting, and she didn't know if we could do it in a day... finally arrived at no, she wouldn't do it today. Maybe tomorrow, but next week otherwise, maybe. I decided, then, that it was time to laugh instead of screaming in frustration. A week gone on the ground, and she thinks I can just wait around and waste another week out of four? I'm not a retiree, I'm on a very limited leave of absence with a mission to perform. D and I scrapped flying down immediately in favor of pattern work, to get some flying in. But we also stewed over it - the woman was the nearest in five states that's AYA-blessed. Still, there are other CFI's out there who've flown Grummans, even if they're not officially blessed. I won't get the insurance premium reduction or the structured training, but f*ck it. I came down here to fly, and I'm going to fly whether or not it's convenient for them.

That decision made, anger dealt with, we checked that the battery was charged, reassembled the battery box, and D showed me how to put the cowling back on - then took it off and had me learn by doing just how to get it done. It's a pain! The airplane started fine, though now his push-to-talk didn't work so I had to make the radio calls. Winds were gusty and strong, and an overcast layer was coming in at 2500, but it was a great day to get some crosswind practice in. We taxied to runway 4 (winds from 060 degrees magnetic, 12knots gusting to 18knots), and D had the first stab at it.

The plane may have a slightly anemic engine, but don't let that fool you to her roll and pitch response - she's snappy! D pitched her up too much, and she responded by leaping off the runway with too little airspeed - nose back down and we rocked along with ground effect and gusts, building airspeed to climb out. The first landing was rough, and D ruefully said on the way out. "Flying Herc Patterns....that's what'll get you, going from big planes to small ones. The sight picture's different." Second time round, he flew a low approach, and instead of landing flew the runway about a wing's length above it. The third one was a lot smoother - but I was having problems with being the comm. ATC may use the same phrases in standard english the world over, but I could not understand his southern accent.

So we departed, climbed and crossed midfield, and headed out east of the airport. Normally I couldn't go there, as it's be filled with fighters, Hercs, AWACS and A-10's, but they were closed for Martin Luther King day. (Which is why D was free to fly with me.) So with a couple thousand feet of altitude, D took controls to show me the performance of the airplane. He pushed throttle in and whipped the yoke to the left. The world flopped on its side, and we were spinning in a circle tight as a dog trying to catch his tail at 90 degrees of bank - the windscreen was split down the middle with ground and sky. Then he turned it over to right, and the airplane snapped over to roll near the edge of inverted, with G-forces slamming me into my seat. It startled a "Shit!" out of me - both at the amazing responsiveness, agility and ability, and at the way the sudden movement made my a shock of pain snap up my neck along all the old injuries. I have no doubts that the airplane will do anything you ask her to, except climb quickly. I also have no doubts that her limits are much further out than mine - but I know why fighter pilots like her, too. And it's not just the fact that you can slide the canopy back in flight. Which D proceeded to demonstrate. It's cool. And, on a day after a cold front came through, that's cold. When I took the controls to play with her, none of my banks exceeded 30 degrees.

We headed northwest to Cook County airport, better known, it seems, as Adel for the town next to it. There, straining to make out the crackling CTAF calls in Southern to see if any of them were for us, Dave flew a low approach on runway 5, and then turned it over to me. No VASI, no PAPI, no gauge for glide slope high or low but my own eyeballs and our judgment, I shot touch and gos and low approaches to learn the feel of her landing. She's a really clean airplane, and unforgiving of extra speed on the approach, or of coming in too high, or of too fast a descent rate. On the other hand, she's extremely precise - if you nail the speed, she'll nail the numbers.

All fun must come to an end - and when the sight guage for the left tank bobbled down to a quarter of a tank, we called it a day and followed the highway back to Valdosta. Coming up on Valdosta, I confused the military approach controller, who either was having a hard time understanding my accent, or was having a hard time understanding that we were checking in. He turned us over to Valdosta tower, who I couldn't quite understand - but I did catch that we were cleared to left downwind, runway 4. That's unusual, because it's not the main runway - but it was a quiet enough day he must have remembered we were using it for touch n' go's. (Or a quiet enough airport, which is scarier but probably closer to the truth.)

We spent a while going over reviewing our pattern work, the plane's characteristics, and diverging onto the idea of building a radial engine from aftermarket Harley parts. Then off to find my way home, which was much harder than it should have been due to random repaving. The hard part of my day was done, though, so it was fun to try to figure out what the road might be coming from the other way - like many streets in this town, the street I wanted changes names at least five times as it twists across town. Not being local, it took me a while to figure out where it came out under another name. My brother, appraised of the decision to ditch seeking official stamp of approval in favor of actual training, put up surprisingly little resistance - and shot an email to me with two options to contact tomorrow.