Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How to Dodge Airport Security And Still Fly

From my current location in central Louisiana, to visit a friend in Nashville is 10 hours on the road, or really about 12 hours when you include the bathroom and stretching breaks. (Meals were pre-packed and eaten in the car for frugality and time.) We spent around $150 each way in gas, or around $300, on the travel.

To fly in a commuter jet takes about one and a half hours, plus security, which makes it 5.5 hours right now. Recent ticket search shows $242 for one-way, or $429 for round-trip. And you'd be unable to bring toothpaste, get charged heftily for all luggage, ($20 to $140, depending on how many bags you packed), subjected to unreasonable search under low-wage responsibility-free authority, and either pay airport parking or taxi fare there.

If I go down to the community airport - almost every town has one - and got in my own plane, well, she's older and slower, and doesn't have a great heater. She'd take 3 hours, 41 minutes to get to Nashville, and that's probably 4.5 hours because I'd stop for fuel and get a meal on the way. It'd cost around $100 in airplane gas each way, or $200 round trip.

Parking's free at your tie-down, or if we have two cars, I poke my head in to the manager's, tell them you're leaving the extra car for a trip, and nobody bothers it. Luggage is restricted by weight, but no extra charge. Luggage and carry-ons are restricted by airplane weight and balance, and will be arranged so the don't re-arrange with turbulence. Bring your own food and drink unless we're sharing my sandwiches on home-made bread, fruit, trail mix, and bottled water. (Short trips have water and Clif bars).

Weapons, including guns, are encouraged, and will be inspected for how I like them. You will be asked to safe them and remove the round from the chamber because I have a bugaboo about guns and turbulence, and I'm the pilot. If you're flying your own plane, you can do what you want. You are to keep your door closed, body parts inside the airplane, and hands and feet off the control surfaces until I'm not busy and feel assured that you're safe in a small cockpit.

From here to there, with the occasional exception of busy airspace I don't want to play with or restricted airspace, it's straight-line, no stops, no signs, no left, no right, no stops, no slowing down.

And no speed traps. No TSA. You do have to put up with the pilot, though, until you learn to fly and get your own damn plane. Which isn't as hard as it sounds.

Come fly the curmudgeonly skies, where freedom reigns!

No, TSA and FAA, I am not "holding myself out for hire" in violation of the regulations as a private pilot. I'm pointing out that despite your bureaucratic nincompoopery, there are still ways to be free and get where you want to go. All readers are encouraged to get their own licenses and their own planes, and to go fly.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Locavores need to read Dies The Fire

Note to the slow-food movement, locavores, and hobby farmers: you didn't invent farming. Most of you come from non-farm households, and you don't know what goes into full-scale farming. If you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it.

And repeating history is exactly the worst thing to do, since history without rose-colored glasses and politically correct rewriting is a nasty, ugly place where people lived short, hard lives, filled with sickness and death. When people spent 90% of their lives and times focused on finding food, it didn't leave much time for advancements and refinements. As soon as people got their hands on fire, they started cooking - the oldest traces of human habitation show that when we got our hands on a way to sterilize, cook, soften, and make food more palatable and digestive, we figured out this was a good thing and hung onto it. Once we got ahold of starches we could plant and replant for a predictable food supply, we became able to free up time from hunting, foraging, and scavenging to come up with writing, and technology.

The industrial revolution didn't happen because of some massive media propaganda machine convincing people that evil, dark, dirty, dangerous cities were the place to be. Heck, you look back at the casualty rates, and the loss of life and limb in the early revolution, and then sit and think to yourself: how bad was farming, then, that people flocked to the cities, ran to the cities, deserting house and homes, farms and villages?

You have inherited cities that are clean and shining, free of the choking coal soot, of night-soil tossed in the gutters for rain to wash away. You have inherited streets not only paved, but free of dung and attendant swarms of flies - cities so clean you rarely see the rats, anymore. Even the thick, foul smog from car exhaust from your childhood is gone, leaving only a haze. Technology has gifted blue-sky days, where the north side of Chicago doesn't even remember what it was like to live by the mold of the penicillin factory, and the south side does not remember the smell of stockyards, so surprised when the "clean country air" smells like pigs.

I agree with you that duck and chickens raised in labor-intensive environments, by loving people who often have a second income to support the household, modern medicine, vaccination, air conditioning, electric or natural gas heat, running water, and access to power tools and vehicles to help, can be incredibly delicious. I agree that small-scale-farmed vegetables are delicious, and it's really fun to try heirloom varieties of vegetables.

But when you start complaining with one breath that "living simply takes a lot of money" and with another showing just how much work went into your homemade cheese and why it costs so much at the farmer's market, I will look at you with cold eyes and note that both of these prove that small scale labor-intensive organic hobby-farming will not feed a nation. The fact that we have so little agricultural land and so few farmers, yet live in a nation that tends toward obese and exports food to the world, is not accidental or unrelated. You can compete in quality. You can compete in giving shoppers warm fuzzies. You are right when you point out that you are not Monsanto and that's a good thing. However, you cannot feed the world, and frankly, you should not try to convince the world that it all needs to join you. When you start saying "all the world needs for peace is to eat locally", I'm going to point to SM Stirling and say "The SCA's been tripping down that track for years. Save it for your big fantasy novel and sell me those tomatoes."

Because they're really good tomatoes, and with the fresh basil someone else raised and the fresh goat's milk cheese somebody who actually raises goats because they like goats has made, my non-farm-income money is going to have some luxury food tonight. On the other hand, I'm having kiwi fruit from New Zealand in my dessert. Why would I eat only expensive slow food as a locavore when I can live better than any king of an agricultural kingdom in history?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Been Out...

Spent the last two weeks up at a friend's, visiting. What do you do when you have weeks instead of hours at hand? Well, first, massive organization and cleaning, including trying to diagnose and repair both vacuum cleaners. Second, cooking - my fiance and I conspired to put a few pounds on our favorite bachelor by making tasty dinners and leaving leftovers in meal-sized portions in the fridge. Third, baking - I left several loaves in various stages of attacked by hungry men on the counter and placed several in the freezer to be discovered later. The blackberry-lemon muffins, I fear, won't make it that far. Fourth, entertaining the cat - we spent no few hours exploring the backyard, playing "kill the laser dot", or tag. Fifth, sprawl on a comfortable surface reading things from their bookshelves.

Oh, yes, and getting photos taken, shooting roughly fifteen different kinds of guns, playing with ballistic gelatin, meeting the strangest fun people, going to a gun show, chatting with models, and sleeping under a big light diffuser on the studio floor. But then, that's a given when it's Oleg Volk's house, isn't it? You never know just who is going to be polishing off the beer bread or turning up half-frozen from a photo shoot and delighted by homemade hot chocolate and fresh-baked cookies while crowded 'round the computer setup to see the raw images. And if you can't find a laser pointer for the cat who's batting at the ties to the bathrobe, there's always a revolver with crimson trace grips around somewhere (just unload the gun, leave the cylinder hanging out, and don't muzzle anyone besides the wildly enthusiastic cat).

You don't have to like having your picture taken to be a friend with a photographer, and you'll still get an enthusiastic hug for the lasagna all the same. You don't have to know a lot about guns to hang out with a gun-nuttery crowd; they'll be delighted to veer from debating esoteric points of military history or ballistics to praising the venison stew for dinner. Besides, they usually have other interesting hobbies that are just as fun to learn about when you tire of this caliber versus that thingie hanging off a rail, amusing stories, and the men can be counted on to be polite gentlemen, even when I'm imitating a modern zombie in search of caffeine at too-bright in the morning.

Miss him already - haven't even unpacked yet, and though the cat in my lap is most insistent I catch up on two weeks missed scritching (I'm not fooled - the neighbors have been feeding and petting her, no matter what she claims), I keep expecting Oleg to come thumping down the stairs in search of food, tea, or just someone to share the latest amusement with. It was a good vacation - we needed the break. I just wish I could have gotten a little more order imposed on the creeping chaos, and a few more pounds on him. By the last few days, I had given up a quarter of the counter to various fired and unfired munitions, and the top of one of the food storage bins was becoming a default handgun abandonment point. (In order to peel potatoes, first check that the guns are safe...)

Good times!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The awesome of oddities

Sometimes when attempting to pigeonhole, categorize, or otherwise easily explain my partner, myself, or our relationship into three-second soundbites, or fifteen-word introductions, I realize how utterly incompatible we may seem. All the stereotypes clash, and our cultures have more things strange than familiar. Looking around at friends and acquaintances, I'd be tempted to say the same thing - but in the end, it's not our quirks, or the liking of guns, or political ideology, or accidents of biology that make us hang together in a laughing, joking, warm companionship. No matter what brought us together in the first place, it is the minds and hearts that open to each other that keep us together, and distance and time cannot erase that.

I am thankful for you. Because you care, and allow me to care for you. Thank you for the warmth and the humanity you extend, the trust and the communication we share. You rock.

I am grateful to the limits of my shriveled heart and blackened soul for a God who desires not perfection, but greatness, and loves us not despite our faults, but even through them. God who created the universe is big - bigger than I can comprehend - and will always be there to challenge me to be a better person, a greater soul.

I am thankful for a fiance who loves me even when I'm difficult and bitchy, who makes an argument as inconsequential and unimportant, as forgotten and forgiven as water flowing past a rock. Two rocks can grind each other down, but how can you grind water? I am thankful for the opportunity to build a lifelong marriage, and for the patience he displays as we carefully lay the groundwork, each second at a time, with trust, communication, and love.

But since I can only be open and mushy for so long before I must cover it with a defense of distraction, cynicism, or sarcasm, here's a distraction - look! a recipe! Weird as it sounds, it's pretty darned good - the flavors work together here!

Grilled Pear and Watercress Salad

2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp water
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp chopped walnuts (I used walnut halves)
2 firm but ripe pears, cored & cut into wedges (mine weren't so firm. It's all good.)
1 cup watercress (optional, but it really perks the flavors)
5 cups baby spinach
3 tbsp crumbled blue cheese (I used goats cheese)

2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp rice vinegar (I used regular vinegar)
1 tsp dijon mustard
1 tsp minced yellow onions (not as sharp as the white ones.)
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil

First, if you have a grill, lightly coat your grill rack with oil away from the heat source, and position it about 4-6in away from the fire. Grill If you don't, lightly oil a cookie sheet so they don't stick, and broil your pear wedges. Either way, it ought to take about 4 to 6 minutes until they begin to brown, turning once. Start on step two and three while waiting.

Second, Set out a sheet of parchment paper or a plate that's about to get really sticky. In a small frying pan (I used an 8-inch on hand) over medium heat, combine the brown sugar, water, and pepper, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the walnuts, reduce heat to low, and cook for 30 seconds. Remove from heat and quickly spread the nuts out to cool. Use a wooden utensil, and remember that sugar holds heat a long time, and will badly burn your fingers.

Third, in a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, onion, salt, and pepper. While whisking, slowly add the olive oil in a thin stream until emulsified.

Fourth, combine ingredients. Either put the salad greens, cheese, and dressing in a large bowl to toss before plating and adding pears and now-cooled walnuts, or spend more time portioning them out on plates instead. Since this serves six as a small salad, it works out to roughly two pear wedges and a cup of greens per serving. However you decide to portion, sprinkle walnuts last so they have the most time to cool and become less fiercely sticky. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Some things are so sensitive to small changes that the outcome is highly variable, even when you think you know what's going on. Weather is like that - sure, we have a relatively constant rate of sunlight hitting atmo, but anybody can tell you of a day with a 20% chance of rain that 20%ed all day, or the forecast rain that wasn't.

When I changed states, going darned near from solid to liquid (it's still beastly hot down here, even at night, and humid like a wet blanket), I gave away my old bread machine, mailed my cookbooks, and gave away my pantry. (If it costs less to replace than to ship, I gave it away. Leaving Alaska is expensive.) Down here, I found my fiance had already bought another bread machine, waiting brand new for me. While I sincerely wish he'd waited until I could provide hands-on input so I could get the features I want, the thought that counts was sweet and the model is manageable.

Well, it wasn't at first. My cookbooks are still in transit, so instead of using my half-remembered recipes with the machine doing the mixing and first kneading before I pull it out to rise again, shape, and head for the oven, I had to try to find the same recipe on the net. I can't find the same brand of flour at the local grocery stores (they don't even have the same chains here), so I just used the flour on hand, and tried for the best. It didn't impress.

Tonight I tried again, with the third modification to the recipe, longer rise time for the yeast before starting the machine, a new bag of bread flour, and some sunflower seeds(If it was going to rise and fall - or not rise much at all - I'd at least have a crunchy texture to the depleted-uranium density bread). And this time was not perfect - the loaf was stunted - but opening it up, the bread is so much better I declare it good, not just edible. Yay! Everything's better with fresh bread around.

And maybe tomorrow my cookbooks will come...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween!

So far: two fairies, both shorter than my waist, with attendant smiling mothers hovering on the sidewalk, one young witch with a fabulously awesome homemade hat, parent cruising slowly in the car on the street, and one young luau dancer (with sweatshirt on top) attended by a big sister and big sister's buddy on the sidewalk, reminding her to say "Happy Halloween!"

Sure, they're mugging me for candy, but compared to all the "bring your child to where it's safe with approved community stations and healthful snacks", I'll take encouraging kids to ring up random neighbors and see that stranger aren't always scary (even if they have a fabulous black dress and crazy purple stockings)!

Happy Halloween, folks!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


The wings are hung in the rafters, the ailerons tucked away, the tools stored in a tote, and I am gone again.

I shall be back, I promised her. In the spring, to rebuild anew.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Poly-Stits Workshop

There are many skills in this world that are best taught and learned with hands-on instruction. No amount of dry spectographic and temperature detail in a textbook can best describe the right shade of glowing color that is best for hammering bar stock into a folded steel knife. No video can truly teach the feel of a ripe melon, or the smooth rhythm of a pass of a paint gun.

This weekend I was one of a class of four in a garage learning how to cover a fabric wing. We started with books describing both the Poly-Fiber and Ceconite processes, but it was up to us to crack them and read more in our own time. Instead, we spent most of our time with our hands on tools, being walked through recovering an aileron from a DC-3. (If you can recover that, with tapered chord and tight radius bends, wings and fuselage should be simple.)

I learned how to rib-stitch, how to avoid making mistakes, and how to fix the mistakes we made. If we didn't make the mistake, our patient instructor made them for us, so we could learn without fear on somebody else's plane! And like many things in life, if you understand the Why and the How, then the process is simple, but not easy. Fabric work is not complicated, but it does demand attention to detail and the occasional time spent standing there with cup of coffee in hand, plotting out how to accomplish the desired result.

Interestingly enough, this workshop drove home the point of increased expectations. I am rebuilding my plane to a far higher standard than she was originally built. When she came off the line in 1941, she had an expected lifespan of five years. Now, I am expecting the covering I put on her to have a working lifetime of 20 to 30 years with a minimum of fuss and maintenance... If I take good care of her and keep her in a hangar, the work I do now will show when she celebrates her 100th birthday.

That said, many choices in covering will not be driven by aesthetics or desire to look pretty, but rather by desire to have her be the best plane for getting out and exploring the world. We covered doubling fabric on the bottom of the elevators (where the tires are most likely to throw gravel), where to put six-inch tapes (sure, the manual says two, but everybody leans on the leading edge when pouring in fuel), where to put inspection rings (everywhere you might ever need them, whether or not you ever actually cut them out), where to put inspection panels (inspection rings will let one eyeball or one hand up inside, but not both at the same time), installing seaplane scoops over drain holes, how to keep mud daubers out of drain holes, how to repair dents in a leading edge, and how to repair moose-attacked fabric sufficient unto flying back to town for real repairs.

As to using poly-fiber vs. ceconite for the covering? One burn test later, I have absolutely no regret or second thoughts on my choice.

That was some of the best money I've ever spent for instruction, including all my semester-long classes in college.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Not if, but when.

When I was first taking ground school in Fairbanks, learning how to fly in this wild land, my instructor was a tall, grizzled man with a cheerful, laid-back humor. But as he stood before the class that day, he grew very still, and serious. He looked each of us in the eyes in a complete honesty, from a depth and stillness of soul that is anathema to our modern tv-raised hyper culture, and quietly spoke truth.

"If you stay in this - keep flying up here - it's not if you know someone who's not going to make it, but when. Listen up, look around, and pay attention, so that it's not you."

I have a friend, a park ranger who is from the same gentle mountains as I am, and we are both given to agree that the Appalachians are heart-warming, nurturing, gentle, and full of life. They do not compare, but contrast Alaska. Alaska's beauty is breath-stealing. She will catch you and force you to stillness, to awe, at her might, her glory, her grandeur, the sheer scale and wildness. She will strip back your illusions, and blast away your pretensions. She is shock and awe - and she is trying to kill you.

If you're hiking the Appalachian Trail, it's hard to die. Up here, it's easy. The land is not tame, and though we can sit in the city and ignore the earthquakes under our feet, the volcanoes around us, the glaciers that once ground the land down and still can, cough through the smoke of forest fires and smugly note we're above the danger point for most tsunamis, bitch about road closures from avalanches of snow or freeze-thaw loosened rock... It is only our ignorance, self-inflicted, that lets us think we are safe from nature.

That awareness of death weaves its way through our culture - everyone has lost someone, and understands that the land will claim its own if you do not respect it... and sometimes even then. There is no reason to be timid, no reward for cowardice, as it will kill you just as quickly. So it is better to reach for the stars, to climb the mountains, hike the backcountry, go fishing on the Bering Sea, and accept the glory of life with all its danger inherent.

You are going to die. So live, and live well. Love, and let yourself be loved. Enjoy yourself for who you are, and become the person you want to be. Reach out to your friends, to the family you were born with, the family you choose, and the family you make. Because all we are given is a birth, a death, and an uncertain span between to write our names in the hearts and minds of those around us, making our immortality in their memories.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Winter Hibernation in the sun

Not much progress made, the past two weeks. Not much more to be made if it's not made this month, because I'm packing to leave state. I wish I had a truck and trailer, but since I have an econocar that wouldn't last the drive down the Alcan, much less haul the plane behind, I shall be storing her and back in a few months to tackle her again.

It's too late in the year, already, for me to try to get her together and fly her through the passes and the winter storms. So outbound on a Boeing, stuffed into the guts of economy class, trying hard to sleep and dreaming of the joy and luxury when I'll take three weeks to recreate the 14-hour flight, and many stops all along America instead of three layovers in the artificial cities that are airport terminals.

Still, Stits workshop is on the 10th & 11th, so I'll have hands-on learning to cover my wings when the time comes. And I look forward to visiting friends I've met on the internet, and friends of my fiance, and warmth and sunlight in a time when that is a rare and precious resource in Alaska. Who knows, maybe this year for the first time in years, I may get a tan line that doesn't stop at my wrists and neck! ...nah.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Airport/Facility Directory vs. the Alaska Supplement

In the lower 48, the airports are enumerated in the Airport / Facility Directory (A/FD), while in Alaska, they are in the Alaska Supplement. The A/FD is mint green with a silhouette of the states covered on the front and Airport/Facility Directory on the front. The Supplement is salmon-pate-colored (peach-pink), with a table of contents on the front and Supplement written where A/FD is on the rest.

The major differences comes after the section with all the airports, their lengths, frequencies, surfaces, and misc. remarks comes a whole lot of really interesting information, a lot of which falls into the "I really wish I knew that!" or "where the heck do you figure that out?". It contains the approaches and departures to get into and out of Anchorage's spaghetti-bowl airspace, what frequencies to use over what areas, reporting points for common sightseeing areas like Denali or Knik Glacier, how to get out of Skagway, that overflying downtown Talkeetna is a bad idea (they get irritated), etc.

There are other uses for this small paperback book. Firestarter, toilet paper, a bright-colored marker for judging the halfway point on a short dirt strip when you're not sure if you can make it off (not that I'm advocating littering, but it beats to flinders crashing!) But the best one I've heard so far was a supplement with "STAY HERE. DON'T MOVE." written on the back.

An Australian hiker got lost, and wound up about 6 miles off trail very far off the road system in winter. He'd fallen through ice and gotten soaked in temperatures well below zero. Finding him was "like finding a needle in a hay-stack." Once the pilot found him, he took his supplement, which is a very bright color against snow, wrapped some surveyor's tape around it, and tossed it out the window. When they got there on snowmachines a couple hours later, the hiker had wisely followed instructions!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Why Alaskan Pilots Don't Fly IFR

Why do you fly? As much as Saint-Exupery wrote of the freedom from the tyranny of petty things, he had a cargo of mail to deliver. To the plumbers, electricians, miners, welders, and carpenters of Alaska, their plane is a vehicle to get them to their clients and the job site. To the construction companies, the geologists, the surveyors, the research scientists, policemen and fish and game wardens, the plane is both another tool and transport. To the commuter on the road system living with his family where housing is affordable, the plane cuts five hours drive around an ocean arm to a 45-minute flight across it. To lodge owners and guides, planes are the only way to transport their clients and their supplies, and to Native Alaskans who have left their ancestral village and come to the city to work, the only way home is to be flown. To many Alaskans who depend on fishing and hunting to supplement their diet, or for their entire diet, airplanes can take them to where the caribou herds are, or to the salmon runs - no longer dependent on foot or dogsled to get to the food, they can raise their families without famine.

In car terms, the airplane is usually the pickup truck of Alaska, not the candy-red convertible. Like any work truck, the owners of Alaskan airplanes prize utility, the ability to get into rough places, and to work in all terrains, under all loads, in all flyable weather. Airplanes with high wings that clear brush on narrow strips, often have tailwheels for increased short field and rough strip takeoff and landing capability, can work reliably from 80 F to -40 F, and can haul loads from sea level to mountain passes four thousand feet up, are the planes in demand up here. They fly planes from the Citabria to the Cessna Caravan, but rarely will you see a Cirrus, Mooney, or Lear up here. Most of these airplanes are roughly forty to fifty years old, and their avionics are rarely replaced until they no longer function - if, with the rest of the electrical system, they weren't ripped out to save weight.There are a good number of airplanes out there who have a handheld for an avionics system, at best with a cable running to an external antenna. Like most working trucks, the owners cannot afford expensive replacements - if they could, they'd get something that fit the exact same criteria with more hauling capacity.

Upgrading these planes to a modern IFR-capable avionics package will usually cost more than many of these airplanes are worth, which makes as little sense as putting cutom wood and leather interiors on a flatbed hauling freight. These avionics are designed to be cared for, usually only rated to ten degrees above zero - but they'll be sitting on the ramp and flown in temperatures far colder than that, and exposed to glacial silt, sand with a sifting of volcanic ash, dirt and dust every day - an environment they are as ill-suited to as a shiny new laptop on an old John Deere tractor. They are also expensive to maintain, requiring a new databases every 28 days, system checks every two years, and time on the engine practicing holds instead of going places and making money to maintain pilot currency

FAA officials new to this state try to avoid economic reality by pointing out how much safer they believe IFR flights are compared to scud-running, and by stating that all traffic in the IFR system is controlled and cared for. However, the lack of oversight and government control isn't what kills pilots; poor decisions by pilots in the face of the weather and terrain kills pilots. So-called "scud-running", ded reckoning, and mountain flying are skills that must be learned, practiced, and used wisely to be safe. Trying to fly low and slow without an understanding of your weather, terrain, and airplane limitations is akin to taking an average cell-phone-yakking driver and putting him in the next heat on a raceway track.

If you ask an Alaskan pilot why they don't fly IFR, though, the usual response has nothing to do with money in the wallet or the well-developed skills to fly without needing IFR. No, they focus immediately on the thing that'll kill them: Icing.

All icing can kill you, and will if you don't GET OUT. Even the lightest icing changes the airflow over control surfaces, lifting surfaces, and airframe, decreases lift, robs power while gulping more precious fuel to stay in the air, increases stall speed to an unknown (but definitely higher) speed and generally combines to ruin everyone's day. Forecasting it and finding it is an art and a science, but all it takes to make icing is cold air (or a cold-soaked surface descending into warmer air) and moisture.

The higher you go, the cooler the atmosphere gets, until you'll inevitably get cold enough air, anywhere on the planet. Icing levels are very, very high at the equator. In summer, in the lower 48, they're plenty high enough to let many private pilots go about their flights in and above the clouds. As the year progresses, they come down, until we experience ground-level icing, like frost and winter. At poles, on the other hand, the icing level is down to the ice cap. In the arctic and sub-arctic, not that far away from the pole, the icing level is often not that far away from the ground. In summer, icing can still be at five thousand feet.

"If you're going to find icing," pilots say, "you're gonna find it over the mountains." Mountains are physical barriers, lifting moist air when wind hits them, mixing and roiling air, cooling it over glaciers, cooling by lifting, or cooling by expansion after the moist air has screamed through the compressing funnel of a mountain pass, all of which create plenty of opportunities for ice at lower altitudes than forecast. Alaska has many mountain ranges, and to pass between any two major or minor population centers, you must go over or through the mountains.

IFR routes choose to go over the mountains, requiring both a Minimum Obstacle Clearance Altitude (MOCA) and a higher Minimum Enroute Altitude (MEA) on each airway, to provide communication via repeater with air traffic control. To maintain line-of-sight communication with ATC through a repeater, in a state that has North America's highest peak, the MEAs can be higher than the service ceiling - past the performance limit of most of the aircraft in this state can fly. They will, as well, be at or above the icing level for most if not all of the year.

So, when a pilot has the choice between taking an affordable plane modified for the working environment and using the navigational skills adapted to that environment he has been taught, or spending more money than the plane is worth while reducing payload and performance in order to navigate airways high enough to kill him with icing at almost all times of the year, the choice is obvious.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

As long as we're here...

Right wing is trammelled. My mentor and A&P with Inspection Authorization was going to use that authorization, with his wisdom and judgment, to inspect the wing Saturday. Unfortunately, Saturday he sounded like Death on burnt toast and was too sick to get out of bed. But moving forward anyway - Flying Buddy and J of Call to Wings came by, and when I aired my crazy idea of moving the wing up against the wall and putting the other one together this week so my IA would have to wings to inspect, Flying Buddy actually has the power tools and the know-how to take scrap wood left from building sawhorses and knock together impromptu solid supports to hold the wing vertical. I immediately set about baking banana bread for him as soon as he left with the wood. Yay for friends!

A note on the scrap wood now storage rack: this is yet another example of the prime rule of restoration: NEVER THROW ANYTHING OUT.

As soon as J has the free time, we'll lift the wing off, secure it, and start on the left wing. I expect several "Hey! Where did we put this part? And where did we stick this? And did we use all those length bolts on the right wing, or do we have some left for the left?" moments ahead.

Building on the experience of others, I shall keep in mind the wisdom passed to me: "You are building symmetrical wings with identical parts. Lay out your parts carefully, or you'll end up building two right wings, And Don't Ask How I Know."

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Trammelling now

Getting there. Trying to hold onto round wires while tightening nuts that are grudging and grumpy about turning is a pain the the... fingers. Did I mention that the way these things are made, if you simply turn the wire, you screw in the nut on one end, and unscrew the nut on the other?

I want to go outside and play...

Friday, August 28, 2009

She's a Material Girl - Part I, Aluminum.

In 1855 Aluminum was so precious, rare, and hard to smelt that it was displayed in an exposition next to the crown jewels of France. Any man on the street could have told you that it was a semiprecious metal, priced roughly the same as silver. Plastic did not exist. People could not fly.

Thirty years later (1886), two people on two different continents, building their own batteries and using the power of electricity, managed to create a process to smelt aluminum. In 1888, the first commercial smelter had been built, in Pittsburgh. Aluminum cost $8/pound, or roughly $118/lb in today dollars.

This was only fifty-three years before my airplane was built - less than the lifespan of my plane to date.

December 17, 1903 - on a windy beach, a flyer powered by a hand-built exotic aluminum motor (light enough for the purpose) lifted off its rails on a beach and flew.

This was only thirty-eight years before my plane first flew - a span of time almost less than half her current life.

In 1914-1918, The war that engulfed the world came to aluminum production. 90% of capacity was devoted to wartime material, and it was regulated and controlled by the government. At the end of the war, there was a lot of surplus capacity for making cheap aluminum, and a whole new market of soldiers exposed to the material.

The War To End All Wars, as they called it, ended only twenty-three years before my plane was built.

In 1937, Alcoa produced 90% of the aluminum in the world - and this grave error of being first and best, regardless of intent to monopolize, meant the FTC filed one of the longest running antitrust cases against Alcoa. The company would come dangerously close to being put out of business by judicial fiat - including a special act of congress giving the 2nd Circuit court of appeals higher standing than the supreme court after they were found not guilty on all 130 counts, so that the government could win on appeal.

Clearly, the government intended to put Alcoa out of business, no matter what facts or truth might be. And with the War to End All Wars now reduced to being called the Great War as Europe was burning, the military was starting to monopolize the aluminum supply in preparation for our entry into that war - not If, but When. Aluminum, never that plentiful, was expensive and scarce.

So when I say my ribs are aluminum truss, stop and contemplate the marvel of using a new, rather unfamiliar material, which while much less expensive than it used to be, was still expensive and hard to acquire in mass quantities. Each rib of my airplane is a work of art, in which a thin sheet of this highly expensive material was folded to increase stiffness and rigidity into a T-shape or a W-shape. Then, very like assembling a bridge for cohesion, strength, and resistance to all twisting forces from any side, the pieces were riveted together with the least amount of metal possible, using the same mathematics that led to the creation of truss bridges that spanned formerly impassible gorges and carried rail freight across the land (And those marvels the rib imitated on smaller scale were less than a century old themselves.)

My leading edge was formed of aluminum so thin it could not withstand the impact of a fly on its own, but used as a reinforcement for doped linen, it became tough and strong enough to hold its own. More very thin, very expensive, aluminum was carefully spared to form an arrowhead-shaped trailing edge and the curved aileron cove that held the fabric in a concave shape so the aileron might nestle into the wing.

This presents problems - today, in a world where aluminum is so plentiful that people use it for their drinking containers and throw it in the trash when they're done, there is no need to stretch and conserve aluminum so tightly. Therefore, I literally can't find aluminum in the proper alloy thin enough to replace my leading edge with what it used to have - and the material to remake my aileron cove had to be sought, specially found, and shipped up on the barge. Atlee Dodge tried to make the complex bends out of the thicker, more common material, only to find that the design created to stretch this once-rare, once-expensive metal also took every advantage of its flexibility and lightweight nature - and the thicker alloys crack when they try to fit the same tight bends. In some parts, I can sacrifice her lightweight nature and hurt her performance by using modern thickness - but sometimes I must search and search for what was once everyday.

So when you see her ribs, understand that thinking of them as fragile, flimsy things is to see them with eyes blinded by modern culture - and to step back and see them in the context of history and design, they are each a work of art, crafted by the hands of women in a factory where the only men left were too old, too valuable, or too broken to be drafted into military service. Dolores said, once, that "They liked the girls to make the wings, as we had smaller hands. By day, the men - what men were left! - would put the frames together, and at night, we'd build the wings."

October 13, 1941 - She flew for the first time.

December 7, 1941 - She was grounded, as were all airplanes, for word came that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by enemy planes. The world had gone up in flames, and no longer would we build forces and worry - we were at war.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Aw, nuts...

What's wrong with this picture?

AC 43.13 B states that a bolt must have at least one thread past the end of the nut. If I had a set of blueprints that stated what bolts I needed, this wouldn't be an issue. On the other hand, since I don't, this means that my method of choosing hardware is to find something for the correct size hole, cross-reference with the old hardware, and get what looks like the correct length. Unfortunately, any time you put a fitting on wood, especially when other fittings fit on top of that fitting, and not all fittings are the same thickness... you get the goldilocks method of finding the right bolt length.

Well, why don't you just choose bolts that are too long and that way you have enough? Because it doesn't work like that - there's usually a fixed length of thread, and then a thicker shaft on each bolt. The longer the bolt, the longer the shaft, not the threaded section. If the shaft protrudes past the fittings, the nut will only tighten to the shaft, leaving the fittings wobbly-loose and the bolt freely rotating in the hole. Bad idea. So, time to do the boltey-pokey. We put the short bolt in, we take the short bolt out, we put the too long bolt in, and we wrench it all out. We put the slightly longer bolt in, we take the slightly longer bolt out....

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Progress, regress, but at least it's not congress...

Right. That whole trailing edge rib fitting works better when you finally realize the piece you thought was the original, wasn't either. It was simply a better-modified but not completely matching replacement version. And the original pair, when you find one, matches enough with the pictures to be for the other wing, which you haven't started assembling yet. The other half of the original pair? Long lost - may not have ever had in the first place.

Back to sanding and repairing, cutting and drilling. Priming and bolting to follow!

Friday, August 7, 2009


My wings came to me in twelve totes and bundles, without blueprints. This means sometimes I get fairly far along before realizing that there's a little piece that should go right there. In this case, I finally got all the main ribs and noseribs on my right wing, and started fitting compression struts when J of Call to Wings lifted up a primed part and said "Where do these go?"

In her hand she held two trailing edge ribs. Which, in the year I've had this project, I've obviously sanded free of corrosion and primed, but then forgotten about. Where do they go? There are two different styles, too, so am I looking for another set for another wing? This sounds fairly simple to look at the photos of wing prior to disassembly and see - but it turns out that since the aileron cove was nailed to the rear spar with plenty of supports, it's really hard to tell trailing edge rib from cove support.

Today, after much scrutinizing of the old spars at lunch, I suddenly understood - it's the nail holes that tell the story in varnish. There's only one trailing edge rib, which only nails to one side of the spar! The reason the second trailing edge rib doesn't look the same is because it was cut from a full rib, and never fully modified - the second piece of metal for nailing to the spar removed, a third of the remaining piece that gets nailed to the spar cut and flattened to fit under the strut support!

Tomorrow, I shall modify the second trailing edge rib - because it's better to modify it now than to wait until the first is nailed to the wing and not able to easily examine!

Progress continues...

Friday, July 31, 2009

Memories of Warmth

It's July in Southcentral Alaska, and that means weeks of gray overcast clinging to the mountains and creating a lower cap on the sky, a ceiling of 1000 to 1500 feet up, ragged undersides that spill down in light curtains of rain, seeming gauzy curtains up in the mountain passes hiding the way through, splattering down too heavily to be ignored, but too lightly to be a soaking rain. It's the time of year where it's normal to park your car and come out two hours later to a wet parking lot, still dry beneath the shadow of the vehicle, and never noticed it rain - but turn on lights and wipers on the way home. Student pilots circle the runways, waiting for the ceiling to rise enough for touch and gos, looking longingly at the weather charts in hopes of making cross-countries, while their CFIs look at the same charts with a more experienced worry of fuel and sustained higher ceilings to make it back, even if detouring around downdrafts and virga.

It's the sort of season that makes a student pilot learn why the older pilots state so firmly that you must never go through a pass unless you're willing to wait for when it clears up - and that if you want to learn to scud run, you better do it on a clear sunny day first, because the world looks completely different at 700 feet instead of 4000, and you can get lost in a hurry that way.

The fireweed is blooming at the top of the stalk, and the wind off the mountains smells of snow, bringing a chill in the rain-soaked humid air that aches the damaged joints and bones. This weekend is the last one for dipnetting and catching salmon to fill the winter freezer - the days of abundance are drawing to a close. The scent of snow haunted me all the way to Willow, with the first speckles of golden leaves in the aspens, as I went with my fittings to get an eighth of an inch planed off, cutting the weight of the spars and the height as I brought them to the lower limit of acceptable width, to where they'll fit the original fittings.

Casting my mind back to April, when there was still snow on the ground here, I remember a warmth that baked the bones, that fell without reserve with abundant sunshine across a broad flat land - driving with lights on at four in the afternoon, I remember San Antonio. There was humidity aplenty, there, too, but it was more a stifling blanket against the skin instead of a creeping tide of pain - and could be banished with a blast of the prop, the wind coming through the cockpit of an L5 as we leapt into the sun-baked sky. Whereas here the horizon is now bounded by the curtains of low clouds and rain draped onto the mountains dimly seem in glimpses through them, there the humidity seemed to erase the sky, the horizon, and everything in the distance - a world so endlessly flat made small by lack of definitions in the distance. I could barely see the downtown skyscrapers from Cannon Field.

Looking back now, the near-impossible heat that had me hovering on the edge of heatstroke doesn't seem so bad - but as wiser people warned, that was April. Still, as rose-colored glasses are want to do, I miss Texas. (But not Houston, with its smog.) I miss warmth, and light - and though I know the crisp, clear days of September are ahead with the full blaze of aspen and birch in bright and browned golds, the purple-red of highbush cranberries and dying fireweed below and the bright clear white of fresh snow on the mountains gleaming in sunlight as it comes closer and closer to the sea, for now it's soggy, gloomy, damp, and making me contemplate the wisdom of birds who migrate south.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Is it just me...

Or does the stake in GM and the cash for clunkers program reveal Obama as what he really has the personality and talent to do?

Used car Salesman!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Your fear is worse than what you're afraid of

I do not have health insurance. Aside from a few scattered patches of time in my very early childhood and two jobs during my adult life, I've never had health insurance.

And it didn't matter. Because we saved money, ate healthily, brushed our teeth, and paid cash to the dentist, fitting in when he had an opening - and for an business that spends months and years chasing insurance payments and hours per claim fighting for its money, they're willing to give a nice hefty discount for folding green stuff up front, on the counter. For the few times I was bad enough to need a doctor, we went to the family doc, paid cash, and got treated so we could go back to running around the woods, hunting, fishing, biking without helmets, swimming in irrigation ponds, and doing normal kids things.

When I fell down, I picked myself up and kept running. When I got sick, I stayed home from school. Or I went to school anyway. When I got a splinter, I picked it out with my own pocketknife, and cut the eye off a fishhook so I could push it out much the same way. When I broke a toe, I wrapped it and kept on going. Sure, I have a few scars that aren't banded with neat lines of stitches, but they healed all the same. I didn't stop living life for fear of injury.

I never had air conditioning. I still don't like it - people keep their houses and businesses so cold that walking in is a shock to the system, and walking out is worse. Air conditioning is a way of conditioning yourself to be a prisoner in your own home, tied to your tv for entertainment.

Now that I'm an adult, I do as my parents did - I save money so when I get sick, I can take care of myself. When I got crushed between two cars by an idiot who didn't look where they were going last summer, I had enough saved to get through the next months of no or part-time work, and pay for medicines and medical bills. No, I "can't afford" the ER or the MRI's in cash up front - by the way, for those of you who never had to do more than a copay so it's a huge scary unknown, the ER usually runs about $1000/hr. But you know what? As long as you are willing to pay, and to make a good faith effort towards paying, medical billers are pretty darn friendly and easy to work with. They're also pretty used to dealing with slightly spacey (medicated) people.

The idiot who crushed me between my front bumper and her rear bumper got a $75 fine. Her insurance company has yet to pay. But life goes on - I've already paid off the ambulance bill, one small amount per month at a time. Even if her insurance company never pays, I'll still be fine, and still able to pay the whole thing off in a few years. Sure, I haven't eaten out much since then, and I've only bought one vest and one pack of new socks for myself since the accident, but boo hoo.

Don't be so easily motivated for the sake of "the uninsured." Don't be so scared of being uninsured, either. For damn sure don't let your senators get away with mandating that I have to be on a government-rationed health care plan, because you know what? When I go to the doctor, I put a lot of effort into making sure I get my money's worth of doctor, and that I follow the instructions well enough that I don't have to go back! I defy you to tell me that's true of most people who only have to put a $20 copay or none at all into their medical care!

So, speaking as one of the uninsured who is perfectly freakin' happy with her amount of health care, please call, email, and write letters to your senators and representatives and tell them to stop with the train wreck of abominations and absurdities they're trying to con(gress) us into.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Nothing but the good things

The spars for a F-19 Taylorcraft are 1/16th of an inch taller than the spars for a BL12-65 or BC12D. Fortunately, I found this out when puzzling with my IA on why my spar attach brackets didn't fit right, instead of when I had a finished wing not fitting on the airplane!

Called Eyak Air, and Joe said I could fix that with a jack plane, or he could do it in five minutes, no problem, if I brought the spars up - even on a Saturday, when three-quarters of Alaska is gone fishing. Road trip again!

On other notes, the FAA, in a rare moment of common sense intended to help keep vintage aircraft safely maintained, restored and flying, released Advisory Circular 23-27,Parts and Materials Substitution for Vintage Aircraft, dated May 18, 2009. The AC, created by the FAA’s Small Airplane Directorate in Kansas City, Missouri, was a joint effort by the FAA in consultation with industry representatives including EAA and EAA’s Vintage Aircraft Association. EAA Press Release here.

Why is parts substitution so important? Well, when your airplane outlasts the company that produced it, finding "approved parts" created by and for it becomes not only hard, but dangerous. Theoretically, I should only replace parts in my airplane, according to the FAA prior to the AC, with the exact same parts that broke. Do you have any idea where to still find silk-wrapped solid copper wiring? Can you imagine being fool enough to put that fire hazard in a wood-winged aircraft when today's modern wiring will work better, cleaner, cooler, cheaper, with far less chance of fire if something goes wrong? Hell, back when this plane was built, the anti-drag wires were the same wire as Harley Davidson spokes, and the carburetor was a tractor engine carb, slightly modified to take sudden (for a tractor) altitude changes! They didn't have the concept of airplane-specific parts!

So, good things!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Progress, Regress.

Word from Atlee Dodge - there is no material in state with which to make my aileron cove. Tried making it with the next-harder aluminum, and it cracked. (need SO, also called T0 or full soft; T3 is too hard.) The material's on the next barge up - should be here so I can cut my own holes out after they bend it in two weeks.

Came home, took at look at the "straight enough" bolts. Shook my head, went to make dinner, napped, called my fiance and told him I loved him, came back - still so crooked I couldn't stand it any more than hiking up a mountain with a rock in my shoe. Took out all the bolts, tried again to straighten the struts and put all the bolts back in.

Decided to put the jury strut in while I was attaching all the other hardware. Remembered that this was annoying the first time - and that I had to modify the tabs on the jury strut attach bracket when a hole was mis-drilled. When did I remember this? Right about when the jury strut didn't line up with the holes.

So, I fetched the other jury strut, and pegged it in place with a bolt. Hmm. This one, too, has its holes drilled too high on the front strut. And... also too low on the rear strut attach. Which means neither jury strut attach fitting actually fits my spars.

Time to take plenty of pictures, make very careful measurements on where the holes should be to line up with the spars (far easier to modify metal tabs than wood - you don't want to put extra or wider holes into the wood you can't mend.) And head back to Atlee Dodge for more metalwork, as this calls for a precision in drilling I could do, but a precision in welding I currently can't.

I'll just... go and have a cup of tea with soymilk, prime the other side of the hand-cut shims I started yesterday, unload the dishes, look at webcomics, and remind myself that it's like physical therapy - no matter how bleak, hopeless, painful, aggravating, and annoying it seems, if I just keep at it, a little every day, I will be able to walk, to run, to climb mountains, and to fly. We're a broken-winged chick and a broken-winged bird together, and if I can heal myself, I can heal her.

In better news, the spacers, given a day for the varnish to dry, look just fine. And for a rough job, my shims will do just fine.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On (Not) Bolting Ahead

Tonight's progress was all regress. Or, checking other work done, only to find that several bolts in the compression struts had been screwed in at an angle. This is NOT GOOD.

So, taking bolts out, determining the cause is that the compression struts weren't lined up accurately enough (if a small bit of metal obscures one side of the hole, it'll drive the bolt skewed.) Adjusting struts. Putting bolts back in, swearing when they want to follow the new skewed path they've carved threads to follow, taking them out, adding a little percussive persuasion as I put them back in, repeat until straight.

Note to men: I realize some of you love screwdriver-type handles on 1/4" sockets. On the other hand, some of us haven't been building our forearm muscles since we first hit puberty, and think they suck dead rat. Through a straw.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Compression Strut Dance

Compression struts are funny things - six to a wing, of which four are the same length, one is slightly shorter, and one is a good deal shorter. On the front, they take AN4-12A bolts; on the rear, AN4-11A. The first order of business is lining them up and picking out the shorter ones - they go on the butt attach and the spar attach brackets, respectively. The second is to find the barrel nuts that hold the anti-drag and drag wires, and tape the suckers so they don't fall out while you're getting the struts in place.

There are 20 barrel nuts to each wing, because the fuselage-most and wingtip-most struts only have wires attaching on their insides. Forget this and you'll come up short. While you're at this step, find the shims - those funny half-moon shaped pieces of metal. Keep an eye on the shims, or you'll be searching for them most when you really want to be doing tightening. While you're at it, make sure you have enough hardware.

Third, make sure all your ribs are positioned correctly on the wing. If you pulled your built-up ribs off an old wing, you'll note some have parts cut away. This is not accidental, or damage - this is because some ribs lie under the compression struts. (This is where shims come in handy.) Make sure your ribs are on in the correct order, or at least, the ones that are under struts are in the correct order. (Check the others while you're at it to make sure your cable guides are fine, and you haven't put any noseribs or aileron cutout ribs built to go over doubler plates on other areas, and have enough for your other wing!)

Fourth, lay out your hardware. Butt attach brackets, spar attach brackets, jury strut attach bracket, aileron control horn, hinge brackets, the works. Make sure they all fit on. Because, if they don't, now is the time to figure out what needs to be fixed. Besides, the compression struts go over one butt attach (This is also where shims come in handy), and over the spar attach brackets, so you might as well have everything ready to go on.

Do you have all required AN4-11 & 4-12 hardware, washers & nuts? AN3-11A bolts, washers, & nuts (you did note that not all holes are the same, right?) Did you miss those two AN5 holes? Because few things are as time-consuming and aggravating as stopping to go on part runs multiple times a day. (Don't ask how I know)

Now, before you have bolts in the way, take the time to run a straight line up your spars from the middle of the holes for the compression struts, and mark on top where the midpoint of the holes are. This'll come in handy when trammeling the wings later.

Ok, now you're ready to put the compression struts in place! Put them on carefully, use hand power to get them close and a retractable pen with the ballpoint not sticking out to wiggle them into final correct position on the holes. This goes faster if you stick a couple bolts in as you go to hold the strut in place. Remember your shims!

How much do you tighten your nuts? Only until they contact the wood and a quarter-turn, NO MORE. Otherwise you risk crushing the grain and getting set back in time and money while getting new spars.

Next up is trammelling your wings.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Spar update: part All is Well

A note for interested readers: Eyak Air did not actually mess up the spars - I bought a set of Taylorcraft spars made for another customer who had failed to put a deposit on or pick up and pay for his order for over a year. They're excellent and beautiful spars - for an F-19 Taylorcraft, a heavier 1970's plane. My fault for not double-checking before I hauled them home!

When I contacted Joe at Eyak Air, he immediately agreed to remove the second doubler plate and make them correct for a lighter 1940's Taylorcraft. So Peter of Bayou Renaissance Man graciously drove them up while I was at work, and assisted in removing nails, planing off the second doubler plates, and varnishing.

Progress is moving swiftly forward in fits and starts broken by "Where did I put that blasted part?" and "Darn it, I need one more 3/8" socket..." Which is to say, taking breaks for a mead tasting (13 meads to choose from) at Celestal Meads' meadery yesterday (and fireworks, once it got dark enough twilight at 12:30 for the city to put out its display), and exploring the Girdwood Forest Fair in all its hippie glory today.

Monday, June 29, 2009

spar update, part Arrrgh

Things are never as simple as they seem.

The new spars have two reinforcement plates on each side instead of one, making them too thick for the ribs. Tomorrow, consultation and hair-tearing with the IA. Probably followed by rebuilding the ribs that go on the spars. (Sure not going to tear into those fragile, awkward, expensive pieces of wood.)


Friday, June 26, 2009

The land between glaciers

We went for a walk between glaciers: between the Knik glacier and the glacier-feed Lake George, skirting the shores of the lake. Once, the lake was much higher, much deeper, and prone to flooding out downriver as the ice dams broke. After the '64 earthquake, things changed, the glacier retreated, and the lake retreated as well.

Now, a few decades later, the lake is hemmed in by a terminal moraine, and where was once lakebed under sixty meters of water is now a dry, flat, level place with a thousand foot long runway worn into the dirt, dog-bone shaped with turnarounds at each end. It's the sort of place you can take even a nosewheel plane, to hike around.

(Below, the looking north at the Knik Glacier before landing.)

And so we did, in three planes, packed with nine people - of them, one born and raised here, most of us come by choice, and two visitors playing tourist. A nosewheel Maule hauled four, the Cessna 180 brought three, and the Citabria came fully loaded with two people on board. After several passes to watch for traffic, check out runway conditions, watch someone else land first, and decide everything was good, we touched down as smoothly and firmly as if it were a groomed gravel runway, taxiing to the end to pull around and park. (When operating on gravel or off-airport, it is extremely important to keep in mind where the wind and your prop wash are blowing the dust cloud behind you; your own dust trail can close the strip. It is also extremely rude to dust other people and their planes, if you have an alternative.)

Gathering to watch the last plane land, we decided to hike up the moraine that formed the rimwall of a higher Lake George, and set off on one of the clearer, low-brush parts. On the way, we found evidence that the land still shifts and cracks, moving underfoot; three laid-in tie-downs stood a ways off strip, separated by several gullies and quite impossible to land near or taxi to now.

The predominant plants are dwarf fireweed on the dry mud, reeds on the wetter, lower portions, and willow scrub (it's a low thicket bush here, not a tree), with alder scrub as well. Even with fourty years to grow, few things are higher than a tall man - the growing season is short in air chilled by the glaciers, with constant wind and sunlight blocked by the tall gorge's mountain walls. Not much grows here, and few things live here - the odd moose or bear wandering off the mountains on each side, but the dog didn't even give the slightest sign of scenting a rabbit.

Down the other side, we walked among the driftwood, asking the scientist among us if the wood there had been torn off the glacier in its passing from hillsides recently or been frozen in hundreds of years ago - no real way to tell, but that there was a lot of driftwood at the base of the glacier in a place where there was no other source for those splintered logs. So we stood, and talked, skipped rocks, shot each other's guns, and went hunting for the remains of a decades-ago downed airplane before stopping to share food. (It appears someone else salvaged everything since.)

On the way back, we encountered dwarf fireweed full of butterflies closing up their wings for the night - under the high overcast in the subarctic near summer solstice, it was impossible to tell the time by the light. So we went on up the glacier valley to Tuition Strip, so called as it cost someone a semester's tuition when they tried landing when it was still slick mud and wet lichen, not yet dried enough for traction. There was a still-muddy patch near one end, and though the runway had been thoughtfully marked off at lengths with bits of surveyor's tape, it still needed some work to make the heaviest and ground-hugging craft comfortable. So, we formed lines to walk down its length, pulling small willow scrub growing there, leaving a smoother, more prop-friendly strip behind us.

As it grew later, and the wind less, the mosquitoes came out - and so, we took off and went back to Birchwood for the night.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sunday Flight to Seward

Turnagain Arm is the ocean arm that forms one of the three arms of the triangle that is Anchorage. The other two are the Knik Arm, and the Chugach Mountains (Seen on the left in the photos.)

The first mountain valley is Indian, on the other side of Powerline Pass from Anchorage; the second is Girdwood, on the other side of Crow Creek Pass from Eagle River.

Proceeding to the end of the arm, turn right and follow the road toward Seward. The pass is narrow at points, and prone to sharp turns.

Watch the road carefully; the first split is to Hope, the second to Kenai/Homer. (This is why Kenai is 30 minutes away by slow supercub flight, and at least four hours behind the RV on the road.)

Kenai Lake - if you'd taken the faster way instead of following the road, you would have gone down the west side of the mountains and cut through over this lake.

Welcome to Seward. Try not to deride the tourists who gawk at you eating ice cream; a lot of them waited all their life to see this place, and they're paying good money. Smile gently, point out good places to eat, and head on down to the boat ramp to make sarcastic fun of other locals trying to back up trailers and pull boats out.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


The engine was making the odd little noise it does when it's low on oil, so I stopped at a gas station off the main drag on the way home after a good day. It was well past midnight, I was tired, aching, stiff, mildly smudged with grease and dirt, and freckled with mosquito bites. The western sky was still ablaze with the remnants of sunset, so I didn't feel like I was out too late when I clumped into the gas station in a tight-clinging scrap of a shirt, low hip-hugging jeans, and boots I hadn't bothered to bend over and tie. One of the double doors was pretty well blocked by a lovely black girl dressed in not much who scowled fiercely at me and hunched over the atm as I pulled open the other door and wandered over to the aisle with the oil. The guy behind the counter grinned at me as I clumped up, and cheerfully rang me up as we exchanged pleasantries.

On the way out the door, I dodged between a hood hunched over the atm and an a police officer coming in - they nearly managed to block the door altogether. The officer and I nodded to each other, and he returned my friendly smile and nod with a sudden one of his own breaking out. "Hey!" He greeted me in passing, and I grinned back.

As I lifted the hood on my car, I racked my brain trying to place him, then mentally shrugged and concentrated on putting the oil in the engine. When store door opened, the officer stepped out with a bag in hand, and came over to my car. I looked up, and he smiled. In the tone of someone who just found an opportunity to ask a question he'd been wondering, he said, "Do you work at both [my aviation job] and [Aviation Repair Place]?"
"No, [Aviation Repair Place] is my IA who's helping me put my Taylorcraft back together." I grinned, shaking my head.
"Oh!" He looked enlightened, and nodded. A little small talk later - him asking if my car was all right - we wished each other good night. He headed back to his patrol car, while I closed up the hood and headed home.

It happens to me when I head downtown with a friend for beer and watching the sunset, when I buy groceries, when I'm on the other side of town getting some clothes, when I'm in a group of friends getting pizza and having a good time out, in the jury pool, in line at the post office... but getting recognized at 12:30 in the morning in a gas station off the main drag? I just have to give up and laugh, and swear to never let anyone put my name on the internet, because I've got so little privacy as it is.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Life at 135 miles an hour

Monday was a beautiful, warm, sunny day - the kind where it's just cool enough that there's not that much convective turbulence, and all the puffy clouds are small, sky bright blue, mountains flush with green at their bases and starting to only have runs and streaks of ice left near their tops. The trees are in leaf, the ground carpeted in green, and we are so far into spring that things are even starting to bloom.

(I remember, in the lower 48, flowers came first and then leaves came later. Here, as soon as it's warm enough, everything in the plant kingdom immediately burst fully into leaf, soaking up every photon of our short summer's sunshine for growth and food. Flowers come later.)

Flying Buddy, the beagle, and I took the 180 over to Wolf Lake, where we took the measure of the last attached pieces of hardware from the wheelpants. He wanted to remove everything - not just to clean up the landing gear, but also so he could trade the mud, tundra, and weed collectors to someone who flies off asphalt all the time and wants the teardrop-shaped metal pieces that clean up drag and let a plane go faster for less fuel. The beagle promptly started rolling on her back and tearing around the property, baying happily. Flying buddy and I jacked up the airplane, dragged the right toolbox over, and started by pulling a cotter pin and taking off the right brake pad. After checking its depth and wear pattern, we undid no few bolts, and carefully worked the wheel off. Then we managed to take off the plate between wheel and landing gear that supports the wheelpants. Then came the fun of putting everything back on with a different axle nut, and fishing a cotter pin blindly through the wheel. (Why is it things are always easier to take apart than put together?)

We detoured briefly to wander down a few hangars away, admire two beautiful C-123's, one with some busty nose art proclaiming her "Large Marge" (if you've watched "Con Air" with Nicholas Cage, you've seen her before, but she's back to being a working freight-hauler again), and borrow an inch-and-a-half socket for the axle nut that refused to thread in. One of the joys of aviation often observed but rarely stated is this: If you are not fundamentally honest with yourself, when flying, you will die. Fundamental honesty with yourself often leads to fundamental honesty with others, making this vocation of aviation a place where a person's word is a solid bond. Combined with a shared love for airplanes, it leads to easy honesty and sharing - whether large, expensive, odd tools or someone's plane or car - among equals.

After a few hours wrestling with the plane, we had everything put back together, tools returned or put away, and a shopping list (new brakes) for the next paycheck. It was eight in the afternoon, and there were still three hours til sunset to play. As soon as we had retracted flaps and were climbing out, Flying Buddy asked with a grin in his voice, "Want to fly her?"

I did, as I almost always do. And I looked around the Matanuska Valley, and picked the one way I hadn't been yet. "What's up there?"
"The Matanuska Glacier." He replied, and was silent a moment. "That's the way to Tazlina, too."
"Sounds good to me." I turned and headed toward it. What better reason is needed when you have full fuel, good wings, and sunshine?

I pointed the nose, and headed that way. I still don't have dealing with a manifold pressure and prop control down as second nature, and we talked about it, chatted about work, pointed out airstrips, eyed gravel bars on the river, and made our way up the rising terrain. I could not trim that plane out to level - she has too much horsepower for a mild turn or two of the trim wheel to suffice - and I didn't mind, as our climb kept pace with the terrain.

The Cessna 180 has six cylinders, which runs so much smoother and doesn't hurt my damaged knee near as much as the four-banger PA-12. It also runs much faster - while I'm used to life cruising at 90 and playing around at 50 to 80 miles an hour, the airspeed and groundspeed agreed - we were picking our way through the mountains, threading along at 135. Given a thousand extra feet from the surface more than usual, (it's unfamiliar terrain, and altitude is time to make decisions, where time is life), the surface didn't seem to move that much faster - but we were screaming along.

Even the extra height could not diminish the glacier-carved grandeur below, with sheer cliffs tumbling down, high hanging valleys, deep-carved crevasses and creeks and the gravel-braided river deep in its channel, swathes of bright green birch, dark green spruce, grey-brown beetle-kill, and stark spires and walls of naked rock thrown high with only the ragged remnants of winter and wisps of clouds failing to soften their ragged jagged triumph.

We land at Eureka/Skelton, next to the highway, after two low passes. The sinkhole was hard to spot, despite being a foot and a half deep - someone had painted a ring around it and an X through it with white paint some time back, but now the low scrub on the runway hid the faded paint remains. (Last time Flying Buddy was here, he landed on the highway, as the snow in the strip was rotten.) He had the plane - I'm used to life at 40mph on short final; 80 on final is far too fast for me to be fumbling through the extra steps of a controllable-pitch propeller. We came down and touched a bit hard, one light bounce before planting the plane firmly. Eureka Lodge's cafe was already closed for the evening (it was a little past 9), so we headed back to the plane, had some bottled water, let the dog out to go water a bush. The lake on the other side of the highway still had a thick coating of ice, and only a little open water at the edge - summer comes from sea-level up, and we were at four thousand feet, not far from tundra.

Taking off, I flew back to Birchwood, and we drove home as the sun finally set below the mountains. Less than a month til solstice, the sky would not grow dark for hours yet, but the warmth was rapidly leaving the air. It was a good day.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Stone and Wood

Some girls really like diamonds. Me, every time I think of diamonds, I think of sitting in my father's shop, doors open and humid summer air moving through, having swept up all the welding slag, cleaned the stray pieces of metal out from under the 20-ton punch press, and finished a box of small assembly parts. As the shop cat slept on top of the air compressor, completely oblivious to the racket (and amazingly not deaf), Dad would show me different tools and explain their use - like when I was finally big enough to learn to use the cutting torch. At one point, shortly after I'd gotten big enough to use the spot welder, he was going through a box of drill bits, and showed me what a diamond drill bit looked like.

I looked at the bits on the end, and said, "Those are diamonds like on mom's ring?"

"Yes. When not in jewelry, diamonds are five bucks a pound." Dad smiled down at me, and I smiled up at him.

Ever since then, no matter how flashy and sparkly the glitter, the first thing that leaps to my mind and tongue when I see diamonds is "Five bucks a pound!" So, ah, I'm not really a diamond girl, unless I really need a darned good drill bit.

Years later, a man broached the subject of jewelery of specific intent with me. I informed him that I didn't really care for jewelry, am quite hard on it, and tend to lose it - and whatever it is, it shouldn't be a diamond. He instead offered first a handcrafted ring with an odd and lovely stone. Then, he offered something that, with care and lack of ground-looping, should last longer than either of us - sixteen feet of the finest crafted Sitka Spruce, crafted into two spars.

It may not impress the ladies that determine social standing by the size of your left-hand rock, but it will hold our lives, and give us wings to fly. It lets me stop biding my time, staring skyward and saving pennies ferociously between the medical bills, and move forward into action, into getting things done, wings built, healing and returning to where my soul sings in joy. He has given me the keys to flight, hope held golden and glowing in my hand, smelling of fresh varnish drilled and laminated to standards drawn up in 1940.

Soon, we shall be together, doors open to let the warm summer air move through, having measured and counted, attached golden cadmium-washed hardware and deep green zinc chromate primed compression struts and ribs, jury and strut attach brackets, and finally be be ready, after trammeling, to tap brass nails to ribs and spars and have the skeleton of my beloved bird ready to accept her skin, her broken wings made whole again. That is my jewelry, beautiful and hand-crafted together with love and laughter and dreams worked in.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Wait, I'm a member of what now?

The Alaska Airmen's Association Trade Show & Conference, generally called The Trade Show, or The Aviation Trade Show, is this weekend at the FedEx maintenance hangar at Anchorage International. Well, really, it's centered in the hangar with all 275 exhibitors inside, but even a building large enough to work on a 737 indoors is too small to contain it, and the static displays including F-22 raptors to WWII warbirds, FedEx Caravan, DC-3, C-47, Grumman Goose and Albatross, Aviat Husky or three, Sportsman, Bushhawk, supercubs and bush plane variants in kit, experimental, and production, business jets, sleek personal low-wing luxury aircraft... they take up more ramp space than the whole huge hangar does, and we haven't even started on the hangar door manufacturers or the airplane simulators.

I stopped by the booth, which was decked out again in Hawaiian theme. After all, people who are part of a lively and active forum may not recognize each other by face, so a loud Hawaiian shirt or a lei helps. Myself, I've never been a member, though I've skimmed the site to cross-check rumors and facts that come through the aviation community.

A friend was standing there talking to someone - after grabbing a mocha to soothe a sore throat, I figured I'd stop and say hi. He turned to me, waved a hand as if trying to recall something, then said "Oh, yeah! You left your earrings in the PA-12! At least, I think they're yours. Ivory and silver?"

I grinned up at him, and flipped my wrist. "Well, given you're not the kind of guy to wear earrings, they're probably mine!" They are, in fact. I took them off because they hurt when the headset pressed them into my ears, and I'd forgotten about it. He laughed, and we fell to talking airplanes. Next thing I knew, one of the guys was approaching, and draped a lei over my head and hugged me. Startled, I protested. "But I don't have a supercub! I have a Taylorcraft!"

"That's all right! Your third wheel, and your heart, is in the right place!" They grinned and had no intention of taking the identifying marks of the supercub crowd back.

Outnumbered and outgunned, as well as unexpectedly inducted, looked back over at my flying buddy, and said, "So, does this mean I actually have to create a login and leave pithy comments now instead of just reading?" The grin on his face indicated that he, too, saw nothing wrong with me being one of these guys. There are worse crowds to be associated with!

Monday, April 27, 2009

When History Takes Wing

The Alamo Liaison Squadron picnic & fly-in was incredibly fun - so much so that I kept on keeping on, despite getting roasted through SPF 50 sunblock and flirting with heatstroke. (My skin going from clammy to being burning hot to the touch, nausea, weakness, inability to think straight, and graying out when standing up are Not Fun. More application of cold water to the head, neck, shirt, and lots more in the body, along with sitting in what shade there was, certainly helped.)

The airplanes are incredibly fascinating - and I will point out in my defense that I was there to glean knowledge on restoration from people who work on the same vintage airplanes as I have, so of course we talked a lot of shop. Of course, it was also fun to learn about different flying conditions in this environment, and swap stories, and compare flying habits, fact-check stereotypes and rumors....

I love my Taylorcraft. And she is a living example of what a P-51 Mustang owner said, once: "When these airplanes were made, they were made to be disposable. And after the war was over, they were treated as so much junk. But as the years go on, the airplane becomes something more, something precious, until you are no longer an airplane's owner. Now, I am no longer the airplane's owner; I am the caretaker of a valuable piece of history."

These aircraft weren't really expected to last - Taylorcrafts of the Great Depression were the Kias of their day - expected to be gone in 5-10 years. Now, 68 years later, she's still hanging in there, still sitting at the strip and ready to fly as soon as I sculpt metal, wood, fabric and dope together into wings for her. She isn't just a plane, nor just an old, slightly battered plane, nor just another plane modified a little for the Alaskan bush... she's a Pre-World War II plane, and her logbooks show the day that shall live in infamy. She was out flying that day, and her day was cut short when the airfield manager closed the field. She was in the Civilian Pilot Training Program / War Training Service, training young men to go fly in the war.

Still, for all that she is a precious piece of history, I met something far more valuable, infinitely more precious at this fly-in. You see, I can rebuild my little airplane. She's been rebuilt many times over the years, and that very ability to be repaired will ensure she'll likely see a century, maybe far more. But the men who flew planes like her, the eyes that have seen what now we have only fading photographs and a few movie clips to record, the men that lived a history now being lost because it is not politically correct, or because few realize how important even the "minor" parts were... sadly, they grow fewer every year, and there is now way to replace them.

It was my great fortune to be introduce (Thanks, Ryan!) to a gentleman who flew the L5 Stinson in the Pacific Theater during WWII. Like many men of his generation, he was polite, and quiet, and sparse with words - but like any pilot, if there's a "I learned from that!" story about flying, once started, he'll tell it with a grin. I only wish that I had more questions to ask him, and that I had heard more stories from him.

As it was, I sat in the shade of a hangar, panted, drank a lot of water, limped around and talked to people, and watched history take wing in the eyes and hearts of people. And while I may have been too exhausted to take part in the flour bombing, it was hard to regret that when I saw the huge grins of excitement on the faces of the kids in the rear seats headed skyward to try to drop packages of flour inside the marked circle!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Flying in Texas

Today is the day before the Alamo Liaison Squadron has their Annual Bluebonnet Picnic featuring a truly impressive collection of Liaison Aircraft from WWII.

So, naturally, today everyone was there, tidying hangars, washing airplanes and tables, moving chairs, and getting ready for the event. The airplanes were being moved around so the projects would be more in back, and the best of the breeds up front, and nobody minded in the least my wandering around and asking questions, taking lots of pictures, and trying to see and learn everything.

Unless many museums which I find mildly boring, this is no collection of piled memorabilia - not a single glass case in sight! Instead, the airplanes are the museum, and as airplanes should be, they are regularly cared for and flown out of the grass strip. If you want to know how she really flies, how she needs to be cared for, how she feels, what her quirks are, where to find parts... now this is a museum where the staffers have wind-ruffled hair and stories of their own, as well as oral histories passed on down!

I may not make the Valdez May Day Fly-In as I'll probably be too busy working, but tomorrow I get to see spot landing contests and flour bombing competitions all the same, as well as formation flying and an open floor for World War Two veterans to tell their stories! And it opens with bagpipes. I love bagpipes - I believe in loud expressions of freedom!

More later on how an L-5 flies - or, better yet, if you are nearby, come see for yourself!