Saturday, December 27, 2008

Close only counts in horsehoes

The wing is connected to the fuselage by two brackets that bolt the spars to the fuselage. It also has two struts that attach from down by the landing gear and bolt into the wing almost halfway out, forming a triangle. These struts are reinforced and spaced by a jury strut, which bolts from about two-thirds of the way up struts into the wing, forming another smaller triangle inside the first one. In addition to critical reinforcement, it also provides a handy place to put your gun case and snowshoes.

But the holes in the wooden spars were drilled an eighth of an inch too high on the front spar and an eighth of an inch too low on the rear spar to attach the bracket. (Guess who didn't find this out until it was the last piece of hardware standing between her and a completely trammeled wing?)

Well, when dealing with a wooden wing, the answer is emphatically NOT making a larger hole in the wood. You want to keep the wooden spars as pristine, free of damage or holes, as possible. So, first I tried the bracket on the old spars. Nope, fit fine there. Then I tried the other bracket, hoping maybe that one had been repaired oddly over the years. No luck. So, what to do?

The answer is: take tape and make an inverted T around the holes, on both sides of the spars. With the help of a square and a level, draw lines exactly through the centerline, horizontal and vertical, of the hole on the spar. Then, re-attach the bracket, and put tape over the tab with the bolthole, while clamping it down with a C-clamp. Using the same square and level, complete the lines across the tape on the bracket, so you have the centerline drawn as crosshairs where the hole now needs to be on the bracket.

If I was in the field, I might just drill the hole a little longer, then weld a washer on top in order to reposition the hole. If I was a better welder, I'd weld an extended tab on the bracket, or fill the current hole, and drill a new one. As it's been six years since I was good at welding, I'm being smarter.

Monday, I'm going down to F Atlee Dodge, and having the welders there do it. See? Smarter cookie than I first appear. And because I'm such a smart cookie, I checked the bracket on the other wing so I don't have to repeat this when I get there on the other wing. But guess what? That one's fine - no, I don't get it either.

Progress continues.

Unrelated notes: Thirty Second's To Mars video for their song "From Yesterday" is extremely pretty - possibly too pretty for the song.

And Jenny? I adore your .22 rifle. I hope you don't mind I put a cheap little scope on it - but it's let me see far enough away that I'm now consistently pegging dime-sized targets at 25 meters. I know this because a certain lanky gent disappeared from the lane next to me, and reappeared with a roll of small orange dot stickers - so I had to put them on and promptly peg them!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Trammeled Not Trampled

I've now reached one of those highly important celebratory steps - trammeling the wings. This is again something that would take an accomplished A&P fifteen minutes to do, and has taken me three days. The first part is to draw a reference line on the top of the spar that marks the middle of the compression strut, and a crossing line at the halfway point. The easy way to do this is to take a square (which is actually a triangle-shaped piece of steel used for making things square), and lining up the top and bottom bolt holding the compression strut in, follow the line up and mark it.. You'll use these lines to measure whether or not your bays - the distance between compression struts - are square, and tighten or loosen the drag & anti-drag wires in order to pull the spar into a square shape.

Except, well, the holes aren't always - or even usually - straight up and down. There's a very slight angle that puts the line well off to one side. To make matters worse, the ribs and brackets get in the way and don't allow the square to easily lie there or line up. Also, your eyes are not in the center of your head - so if you look at something when standing directly over it with your left eye closed, your line will be way off to one side, or way off to the other if your right eye is closed.

Finally my IA disclosed some of the great truths in life:

1. Use a sharp pencil for a fine line.
2. You don't have to be absolutely precise or absolutely accurate - but you must be consistent. If the reference line is off by 1/4 inch, he said, that's fine - as long as it's off by 1/4 on every strut. So mark it as well as you can, and do it the same way, every time.
3. Loosen all your wires before you start, so the wing can be easily adjusted. Then start from the wing root and trammel out to the tip.
4. A piece of inner tube rubber cleaned with brake-kleen is slightly sticky and great for holding the drag wire.
5. If you have a 1/2 inch to square, only tighten the drag wire halfway (for 1/4 inch in this case) - the tension on the spars & other drag wire will pull it the rest of the way. It's geometry, Watson.

It went a lot faster after that!

But wait, there's more - after getting it all square, I have to go back, tighten all the bolts, and re-trammel after all the hardware is tight. This is slightly stymied by the two AN5-16 bolts called for actually need to be shorter than AN5-11. I don't have shorter bolts than that - parts run tomorrow!

I count today as four steps forward with only one small step back - measurable progress!

In other news, Lost Prophet's "Rooftops" is a good song, and I'd really like to hear it live, as it sounds like it'd be a lot better in person than car stereo.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

winter grey, summer green

An overcast arctic winter day is a study in a hundred thousand shades of gray. Most everyone drives with headlights on, as it's not much lighter outside the buildings in daylight than it is inside. (Even the camera wants to take a midday picture with flash). Somewhere beyond the clouds the sun comes up in the south, reaches the apogee of its arc less than a handspan above the horizon, and sinks down a few hours after it first showed: each day, we're still losing 5-8 minutes of daylight more.

Between the layers of clouds, recent snow, sanded snow, old snow with a layer of windborn sand and glacial silt, and freshly disturbed snow, a thousand shades of grey show - and the windsock swinging gently in the breeze seems almost unreal, almost glows with its safety orange brilliance. Staring at it as I drive by, it is too colorful - seems almost like a photoshopped object, misplaced bright splash of color on the right of the road. On the left, the stars and stripes glows red and blue as it ripples in the wind above the POW-MIA flag similarly cut from another world where colors exists, too vivid to be real.

I remember summer like a fever dream now, when these mountains are green...

Flying a PA-12 with tundra tires and flaps, supercub landing gear and every spare ounce stripped, we made our way through mountains with no roads out. We'd followed the right fork of the glacier up the valley it had carved out of the mountain, and past its gleaming blue-white swaths found the small U-shaped bowl in the mountains mostly free of snow. It was the height of summer in the arctic, and the sun rarely set - but it was low enough that it was on the other side of the mountain, making the world seem a rare dim twilight below blue-white skies.
We came around a massive rock, past a chunk of glacier not yet melted, stranded, and found the faint lighter strip of earth ahead, beside a winding creek fed by hanging waterfalls tumbling hundreds of feet down sheer drops to the valley floor. It seemed like a mere scratch in the earth from our height, as though a bear had raked a paw there - but that slightly crooked bare patch of earth was where we needed to land. A slight nudge of the throttle lever pulled back the power as we glided down low, swooping over it to take a look at the bare earth. It was rutted with tracks where prior planes had landed when it was muddy, but it was light, the color of dry dirt now. All around, low scrub willow and dwarf fireweed grew, flourishing in the short, intense arctic growing season above the treeline and setting swaths of pink-purple against a hundred shades of green.
The creek was a light blue-gray of glacial silt, a jewel set in wide green swaths of reeds, and we scanned for smaller, still pools or ripples in the reeds that might show the direction of the wind. Finally, one showed the light breeze was headed down the valley by a wide band of clear, calm water toward the up-valley side, and a patch of wind-stirred water to the down-valley side. In the absence of movement by the larger air mass, the cool air on the snow-capped mountains was sinking and tumbling down, like the meltwater from those snowcaps, gathering and spilling down to rush out as a strong breeze above the new-born river at the base of the glacier.
Coming back around, we paced the plane as though the scratch in the earth were a normal, if smaller-scale, version of a runway (at least three hundred feet if it was an inch - lots of room, but crooked, narrow). Pre-landing checks, going very slow but engine set up to growl and claw out of there if it wasn't going well, we came down with a flaps out and nose high like an eagle scooping air to nearly hover before landing. Only here, we straightened out and bled off a little more speed to gently touch her mains down, then drop the tail solidly and controlled, and roll to the end of the strip. It was rougher than I'd expected, with the ruts, and we had to add power to make it to the widest spot near the end. Only then did we apply brakes and lift the tail up and around by the force of the wind coming off the propeller alone, so she was parked off to the side. Whenwe left, we'd taxi down the strip, shut down and drag her tail back in the weeds for maximum distance.
Shutting down, we climbed out, and listened, looking around. The waterfalls made a distant background rushing noise, and the breeze blew gently in our ears, tugging our jackets and hair. A few birds chirped somewhere, unseen in the low willow scrub, and on the creekbank were the tracks from a single pair of moose. Otherwise, it was completely silent. If not for the friend next to me, I would be the only human in miles. If not for the ruts under our feet, our plane could have been the only sign of humanity had ever set foot here.

Friday, November 28, 2008

steampunk in motion

I have to admit, I like the look of steampunk - each piece that comes up on the net is often creative, thoughtful, meticulously done with attention to detail, crafted with care and passion.

That said, I also have a great love of automated assembly - what robotic assembly lines lack in craftsmanship, they gain in interchangeability, reliability, and affordability. Now, the designers must craft the love and passion to be replicated a ten thousand times over - and when marketing doesn't understand the materials they're working in, you get cheap cameras that break in your hand, and cool-looking cell phones that do everything you could want poorly, and still drop your calls.

My plane was the best, or worst, of both worlds - even today, all planes are made by hand. You can tell - though made on jigs that allow very little variance, when you repair a plane, each piece has to be carefully fitted, often adjusted or slightly altered. For mine - I am just now replacing her spars, stamped with serial numbers from original installation at the factory. The replacements are close, but took some work with file and varnish to fit the hardware.

She came, once, with a lush headliner and insulation, probably wood veneer panel, leather-wrapped yokes, cushioned foam seat... But by the time she came to me in Alaska, every ounce that could not be justified had been stripped out to save weight. Now, sitting in her canvas sling seat, you can see the bare bones of her welded fuselage and wooden stringers between holding the shape of her skin, fabric pinkish-brown on the inside still showing its origin stamped on the fabric. Her instrument panel is a far cry from modern six-pack instrument layout (she predates that design by decades). It's black-painted metal with the mandatory labels glued down and peeling, curling at the edge. Even her yokes are stripped-down, bare-bones.

She is still beautiful to me, for the possibilities, the dreams, the motion inherent in every line, the freedom of the skies. I like the way her clean curves arc down the length of her body, the simplicity of purpose and design, the arch of her airfoil and the golden gleam of her new spars, shimmer of colors in the cadmium wash of her new hardware. Was it Heinlein who once advised to love a woman, and you will come to find she is beautiful?

Still, I am looking at steampunk - an aesthetic which likes to make gears and dials and bare bones beautiful. With a a lot of thought and care, I would like to decorate her bare bones, without adding heavy weight that would retract from her performance. (As if, being female, I wasn't having a hard enough time deciding what to paint her!)

So I'm gathering ideas, in much the same way we shop for our next outfit and hairstyle by people-watching. And I'm looking at her instrument panel, and looking at this page. Clearly, I'll need the designs and labels selected and laid out, panel cut not only to the plane but to the instrument's holes, and it'll be a much larger-scale piece of metal... but I don't plan to touch her fuselage for three years, and I may have it worked out by then.

What do you think?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Metal , Wood, and Cloth

Drag wires are stripped, all the paint brushed out of the threads, nuts loosened and checked, repainted, and on the right wing.

Aileron control rod replacement is in from England. (The internet is so cool - you can get parts anywhere, as long as they exist and your owner group is strong!)

Yesterday, learned how to use a shear, a brake, and rollers for cutting, bending, and curving sheet metal. Learning how to use and mastering are completely seperate states. I have a lot of work ahead if I'm forming new aileron cove. I wish I could re-use the old cove, but whoever took it off the plane was, ah, less than careful.

The new leading edge will be interesting. In 1941, they used 0.012 inch aluminum - yes, twelve-thousandths of an inch thick. This is roughly as thick as a pop can's side walls. See, back before World War II, Aluminum refining had not yet been perfected, and it was not that common a material - so it was expensive! Therefore, very thin sheets were common - you wanted to use the absolute least amount of this rare, expensive material necessary to get the job done. These days, aluminum is extremely common and cheap - but you can't find anything thinner than 0.016 - that's, what, 25% thicker? Heavier, which is bad, but far sturdier, which is good.

If you're wondering how the leading edge avoided being dented when it was pop-can wall thick, the answer is that when covered, the cloth and dope went over the metal, providing a second layer of reinforcement for strengthening, stiffening, and protection against corrosion and collision with bugs. As for accidental knocks when clearing snow off with a broom, or dents from being leaned on or bumped when fueled? Well, those were just a part of life. Be careful or you get 'em.

The aluminum was also SO, or as jewelry-makers call it, full-soft. It can be bent and shaped by hand, and stays bent. This is also called, on the T Hardness scale, T0. (T0-T6) T1 & T2 are darned rare and hard to find, but T3 & T6 are common - or "half-hard and full-hard" to jewelers. So, I'm planning on replacing the first 4 feet of the leading edge with 0.016 T3 Aluminum, or much harder, dent-resistant, thicker aluminum than was originally on it. This way, should someone lean an elbow on the wing while putting gas in (like yours truly, who has dislocated her right shoulder before, and it'll never be as strong again for hefting jugs of gas), it won't be thrashed and dented for the next 8 years until recovered.

The rest of the leading edge I'll likely get in S0 and form by hand on the leading edge. It's easier, and more correct to original form.

The old aileron cove looked like swiss cheese - because in 1941, airplanes were covered with linen or cotton, and a highly flammable dope (glue.) How flammable? Google Hindenburg. The dope didn't stick to metal, so they laid a second piece of linen on the back of the aileron cove's convex curve, inside the wing, and glued it down. Then, when the doped cloth was laid on the outside of the wing, over the aileron cove, it stuck to the doped cloth on the inside through the holes.

These days, we have options like Poly-Stits and Ceconite. Not flammable, or not nearly so, and it sticks to metal. Interestingly, this means that unless I duplicate the linen-on-the-back trick, all the swiss-cheese holes will now detract from the ability of the fabric to stick to the metal while the metal is held in shape. Hmmm.

On grinding - my right rear spar was 1/4 inch too long. Clearly, the person who cut them was better at woodworking than me, but not as perfectionist. So I got a miter saw, discovered that the amound to be cut was half the blade width, got two files, and carefully took off the offending 1/4 inch by hand. It is now varnished, and when the varnish is dry, I'll put the butt attach fittings on.

...It's so close I can taste it, though the completed wing is still months away. Tonight, priming the wingtip bow that defines the rounded edge of the wing, and seeing if I can figure out how to put it on.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Fixxer Upper

One of the time-honored ways to get as much house as you want - as opposed to the house you can afford - is to get a fixxer upper. Of course, the corollary is that it takes twice as much and five times as long to fix up as you think - and you learn a lot of skills along the way. Heck, how many guys and gals got cars that they learned to keep rattling along just ahead of breakdowns for their first car?

Vickie, my plane, is sitting on the tiedown without wings, looking folorn. I received her wings in twelve different tote boxes and several long bundles, carted over to the hangar in the back of the prior owner's truck. Friends are awesome: we set up the shop, put things away, hung the pictures on the wall of the teardown for reference, and started fixing and repairing parts. We laid out the old spars for the right wing, and put the repaired ribs on them so we could see the wing growing as we repaired each piece.

Some of the repairs were pretty trial and error - others we asked for advice on the internet and had handy how-to's ready to apply. Two steps forward, one step back, but progressing every week! Best of all, compared to a fixxer-upper house; I don't have to live with the work in progress affecting the heat in the winter or ability to take a hot shower!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

brief interlude

The day had started out grey and gloomy, but by lunch the clouds had broken overhead, and the banks of cloud hiding the mountains had been pushed back by winds and rising weather to mere strips of fog, clinging to the valleys and leeward side of ridges. JB had emailed me, sounding full of delight - let's go flying! I called him back, this stranger off the internet made friend by our shared ownership of Taylorcraft, and we made plans for after work.

By the time I got off at six, the weather was coming back down, drizzling rain by the mountain making a warning haze. It wasn't raining yet at Lake Hood, but the wind was full of the scents of rain and snow on the mountains. I knew when the clouds lifted, the snow line would be a little lower, winter creeping toward the sea. I parked by the plane, a yellow F-19 on floats, rising high above its neighbors by height of trailer and floats. she is a beautiful yellow and black bird, looking very much in the fuselage like my own - but her wings are on, spreading wide over thirty feet. JB greeted me enthusiastically, and I didn't have to work to smile back.

Due to the accident, I was barely able to walk after trying to work a full shift, so I stood by as he trailered the plane to water and put her in. Taylorcraft are light planes, and graceful - and standing there in hip waders, he was guiding her around, moving her with little effort. They're also blessed with doors on both sides, unlike Supercubs and related ilk, made more gracefully for getting into. With one crushed knee and one unhappy knee, it was still a challenge, but I have enough upper body strength and ingenuity to grab and haul myself in. It gave me a new respect, though, for those folks at Able Flight who manage their whole training and flying by hauling themselves out of their wheelchairs and into their planes. As JB put the truck and trailer away, I sat quietly, looking around, touching and comparing his bird to mine.

We taxied to the end of the lake, completing all the runup on the go (there are no brakes when you're on floats), and when tower cleared us, turning and taking off. Grey sky above, grey water below, nipping wet day... can do nothing to diminish the joy of slipping gravity and soaring up as the world seems to fall away. A flock of Canadian geese rose off the lake, disturbed by our bigger bird roaring toward them. I tensed as they wheeled up into the sky in a cloud, but they broke right, diving again back to food and rest as they readied for a long migration south. Given two people, lots of fuel, and the massive drag of floats, we did not climb quickly - nor did we need to, for the sea below held far less fear than it would for a wheel plane. If the engine quit, we'd be... just fine.

My legs wouldn't work well enough to use the rudders, but once on the other side of the Knik Arm of the sea, north of the power lines running from Beluga to feed Anchorage, he turned the yoke over to me to carefully try holding her steady, climbing and turning, feeling out what kind of personality his lady had. She's not snappy-quick and agile like a Grumman Yankee, but neither is she slow, lumbering, and requiring lead-handed controls with lots of lead-in and lead-out like a Cessna 172. She flies more like the Piper PA-12, Super Cruiser, roomier sister to the Supercub. She'll climb plenty fine - mine with just me and light fuel will make like a homesick angel, but she'll also trim for a steady cruise and treat me gently if I respect her. We talked of her handing characteristics, her habits, the fact that his heater was a lot nicer than I'd been led to believe, the insulation he'd put up on the inside, the custom fishing-rod holder he'd put in.

Alas, it was not a day for straying far from the airport - the curtains of rain were reaching out from the bad weather against the mountains, and more than half the city was now under acceptable visibility with only the glow of streetlights and headlights showing dimly through. We turned and came back across the ocean, not pouring power on but certainly not dawdling, and headed in. Somewhere behind us a Cessna 180 was reporting a hair's-breadth after us, and we added a little more power so the faster plane would not have to swing quite so wide with spacing maneuvers. Over the ballpark, setting up for a long landing, listening to a tower frequency busy with people trying to come in before the rains hid the lake.

Touching down long led to a fairly short taxi back to the public ramp, and I very carefully, stiffly slid out onto a float and staggered back to shore, wishing I could move well enough to help as he again gracefully moved the plane back onto the trailer, winched her down, and pulled her out. Back we went to his parking spot, tying down the plane, and I thanked him sincerely. It was wonderful - not only to see what another plane was like, and what mine will do when she's restored, but also simply to fly. We parted ways, and no matter the pain, the smile still quirked and tugged at my lips as I drove home into the rain.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Clamming At Polly Creek

Out in the Aleutian Mountains, where the waters of Polly Creek flow from Redoubt Volcano into a bay, joined by the glacial meltwater off the Tuxedni Glacier, low tide pulls back a long way across tidal flats, revealing running ridges of sandbars. Once a month, by the pull of the moon on the earth, the tide is especially low. Astronomers call these "neap tides". Folks round here are much more practical; we call them clamming tides.

The red and white supercub ahead had picked a sandbar a mile out from shore and already landed as we came around - with the angle of the sun on wet sand, it looked like he'd gone in the water. But the tide book assured us he wasn't wrecked, as well as the presence of two small figures getting out. From further out in the bay, we saw two boats - commercial clammers - heading over quickly. Up here, lone folks get checked on to make sure they're not landing for engine trouble - when the tide comes in, it comes in at four feet an hour, and the cold water can and does kill. We set up for a nice long approach, taking every advantage of the nearly thousand feet of sandbar and lack of any obstacle nearby. As we came in, the boats peeled back out to the business of making money, satified that we were there intentionally, or at least the first guy was getting checked on.

The wet sand looked flat from altitude, but up close, it was covered in thousands of inch-high ridges, and landing on it was like landing on hard, rough concrete. As we went over a low spot, the tires flung muddy sand and glacial silt up with corrosive seawater onto the wings and struts, and I silently thanked the heavens that we were going straight to a place where we could hose down both aircraft well after this. Then we were stopped - on a sandbar this wide, no need to even turn around first - and getting out into the salt sea air, handing out buckets and shovels. Undeneath that sand (just don't dig where a tailwheel's going to drop in) there were thousands of razor clams, waiting to get into the buckets and become food.

Three hours later, as we were getting exhausted, and the buckets were nearly full, I frowned at the latest hole in hard-packed sand. "Water level's risen in these holes."

"It has?" My digger (my arms were too sore now to wield the shovel, so he dug and I pulled the clam out as it tried to escape) looked at me, then around at a sandbar that looked like it had been swarmed by giant gophers, for all the holes dug.

"Water's coming up behind J's plane, too." I added, kneeling on the sand because I was too tired to get up. About three hundred feet down out of the thousand feet of sandbar, a curving crescent of water was now shining in between the ridges of sand over half the runway.

J's father nodded, then, and called out to the other two. "All right! tide's coming back in! A dozen more, and we're out of here!" He looked back down where the weight and vibration from my body had disturbed the sand, and saw two dimples where clams had sensed me and tried to move away. "There's two right here."

A dozen might have been ambitious; the water comes back in at four feet an hour on a clamming tide, and the sandbar was at most six inches above the retreating sea. As the other plane had two guys in better shape than me, they got everything packed and away first, taking off quickly; we were slower, and threw up a little spray as we roared into the sky. I sat back beside a very cold bucket of clams, reached forward and shifted J's gun barrel so my left knee could rest against the seat, and curled my bare toes around the rudder pegs. Cabin heat, bless the man, flowed back to me, while the window was expertly cracked to keep him cool. All in all, a great day - even though hours of cleaning clams after thoroughly rinsing the aircraft lay ahead.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

It can Happen to you..

"Everybody knows" that planes are fabulously expensive things that you must have a heck of a salary to support, right?

Except I'm working retail, on the floor, and I just bought a plane. She's a project, which is akin to a "fixer-upper" in house parlance, as her wings were taken off and disassembled to be overhauled. All the parts are there, and there are even new parts to replace the old - but I bought a jigsaw puzzle, basically, that takes power tools and patience to put back together. Oh, and I don't have the picture (blue prints, or complted wing) to look at. 

On the other hand, I just bought a plane. A plane!

She's a 1941 Taylorcraft BL12-65. When she was first turned out of the factory, she wasn't intended to last more than 5-10 years; as she's still around, like Ming vases and Papyrus Scrolls, she's become something to cherish and preserve, protect, and fully fly all I can out of her. She started life in Alliance, Ohio, when the Japanese were a distant threat over the horizon, months before Pearl Harbor, and Europe was in a war that we were refusing to enter, stating our oceans would keep the Natzi threat far way.  She now lives in Alaska, a state where the Japanese landed and occupied in that same war.

The key to putting her back in the air is persistance - steadily working a little bit each night.  So that's what I'm doing. Pictures may follow.

(After all, if I can do this, anyone can.) 

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Flying around Denali National Park

If you've been flying, hiking, or climbing on and around Mount McKinley (Denali to the rest of us), or within the confines of the park, the Denali National Park & Preserve Aircraft Advisory Council is meeting Thursday, Feb. 7th, in the Best Western Lake Lucille Inn from 1pm-4pm.

"The council will identify and address the impacts from aircraft flight over Denali National Park & Preserve." For any non-resident treehuggers out there: before you get vapors, please remember that the federal government locked up six million acres of land, and only 14.8 miles of road are publicly accessible within it (aside from a 400-car road lottery that lets the lucky ones in once a year). This isn't Yosemite with traffic jams at the gate; most of the only way to see this state is by air. Even the climbers have to take air taxi to get to Denali (Mt. McKinley).

The aircraft overflight working group consists of scenic air tour operators, commercial operators, general aviation organizations, and other concerned parties.

In other words, flightseeing charters, airlines whose polar flight routes go over DNPP, airlines who ferry folks between Anchorage and our second-largest city, Fairbanks, those of us who want to fly out and see it ourselves, land on the backcountry strips, or just fly from Fairbanks to Anchorage and back to see a dentist and get some shopping in, the folks the government hasn't forced off the land yet when they declared it a national park, the climbers who want to get to denali, the wildlife folks who are torn between getting in by air to study wildlife and the concern that aircraft noise might impact wildlife...

This is democracy in action. If you have a stake in it, or you're just interested, the meeting's open to the public!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Spruce Creek has no Spruces

Flew to Spruce Creek, Florida ( 7FL6 ), which is an airpark on a former base. It's large enough to support two real estate offices, a restaurant, an FBO, a helicopter service place and an airplane maintenance shop on field. Blatant plug: Check Spruce Creek Realty Out! They're very, very cool people - Pat and Lenny Ohlsson are great folks!

On the other hand, the radio died as we flew in. That was not nearly so cool. In fact, as Daytona Beach Approach became weak and scratchy, in that time in which we were in clouds and I could still hear them but they couldn't hear me, was not cool at all. It was a warm sort of mild "aaaaugh!" even after we broke out of the clouds.

The weather briefer was promptly contacted via cell phone on the ground, to let the poor controller know we were down, safe, at our intended destination, and ThankYouVeryMuch for her help!

Lenny Ohlsson still managed to get my American Yankee Association checkout in, which was very cool, and taught me a whole lot about the airframe's strengths and weak points, what to look for and what to utterly enjoy. It's always a delight to fly with good pilots, and he seemed to really enjoy being up in the AA-1B. In his hands, instead of worrying about no radio, I learned instead on how to fly NoRDO - a lot more emphasis on see and avoid, and on anticipating what other people are going to do, and on being visible and predictable.

He also loaded the dead radio onto his golf cart, and we went over to a radio repairman on field. I watched Lenny and my brother crowd in close as the faceplate came off and the cause of death determined - but I myself had my lap securely pinned down by a purring feline who looked quite determined that I should stay and scritch its ears.

We went very carefully VFR back, keeping well clear of restricted areas and Orlando's Disney's Don't Ruin The Experience "Temporary Flight Restriction" that's been in place since they got it politically leveraged in after 9/11/01.

I really, really like communicating - so no flying the plane til the radio is repaired, and reinstalled.

On the other hand, today I went up in Valdosta Flying Service's Cessna 172 SP model. After the supercub and the '73 Grumman, an '01 model Cessna is pure luxury, with an almost overwhelming amount of bells and whistles. With a friendly, helpful CFI, I shot the VOR, GPS, and ILS approaches into Valdosta, and put enough work on holding patterns and maneuvering under the foggles to be capable, if artless, at them. so, 2.3 hours of flying and another 2.2 of ground (and probably an extra hour of comparing "I've always wanted to fly in Alaska" with flying down here, and shooting down the tv-inspired theory that grizzly attacks are common and unpredictable.)

So now what? Well, with my own plane in "broken" status but freshly reviewed on all IFR flying, I'm going to be available for safety-pilot flying. People still working on getting their instrument rating need to have a pilot sitting next to them keeping an eye out for traffic, towers, and providing a situational awareness while they have blinders on to prevent from seeing outside. Another pilot who'll do it without charging is far better while practicing than paying a CFI for all that time, so I'm going to be up with a couple folks over the next week, helping them toward their ratings.

Really, no matter how freshly reviewed I am, tonight and tomorrow I get to spend plenty of time hitting the books. There's a vast difference between being able to slide through the system functionally and knowing the system thoroughly - and people in training will need real answers and explanations to questions. "You learn thoroughly by teaching" indeed!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cedar Key has no Cedars

Sunday, despite Saturday's icky IFR overcast, was a clear, beautiful day. Weather systems move fast in the Southeastern Lower 48! And despite the cold the teething year-old niece of mine had given her 3-year-old sister being a very big cranky fussy deal for them, it wasn't that bad for an adult. So, after sleeping in to make up for crawling in at 2am, back out to the airport.

By the way, the 3 year old calls 21L "Henry" and insists that the airplane's a he. She is as possesive a minx as any woman could possibly be with a boyfriend - I've now racked up three temper tantrums and a seriously cheesed-off three year old because I'm going to go fly Henry and Not Taking Her. That's even worse in her world than the fact that I'm also taking Daddy time away from her. I'm not going to fly her, though, because I've already been warned by my brother, my father, and D the C130 pilot who also flies Henry that she loooooves making the airplane do power-on stalls. She can't reach the rudder pedals, but she sure can reach the yoke and haul back on the yoke with all her might. I hate power-on stalls (They're very hard for me to do, because of the damage to my shoulder, neck, and back), and have no intentions of getting in a wrestling match for the controls with a 3-year-old at altitude.

So, really, it was after a talk with Daddy about why she can't come, and a world-class pout and glare when the pout didn't work that we went to the airport.

Great VFR day here means 30 miles of visibility. While the air was nearly calm - 3 knots of variable wind at VLD's surface - it was ripping southward up top. Never wasting an opportunity for free speed and saving on the $5/gallon gas, we climbed to 7500 where it was roaring south at 30 knots. (34.5 mph) At 7500 feet, which is far, far higher than I usually fly, I could see more of the ground - and more of the clear blue sky above. The middle third of the world, though, looked like someone had taken a dirty eraser and swiped the horizon to smudgily reveal the whiteboard beneath.

My brother has an odd belief that VFR should be flown by landmarks on charts, not with VOR guidance backup. I don't happen to agree at all, but it was a decent training exercise (though I kept an eye on the GPS and the tuned-in VOR anyway. Why take chances?) Fortunately, Cedar Key airport, CDK, is pretty much 110 miles nearly straight south (178 degrees). As long as I held my heading, life was good.

It's easy to fly by landmarks in Alaska; there are mountains, oceans, rivers, lakes, and glaciers for convenient landmarks. It's hard to pick things out of a lower 48 sectional map, where you can go a hundred miles and only see one or two contour lines. So I got better at how to pick out towns, what a four-lane road looks like from the air, and matching river squiggles on the map to river bends on the ground. I also noticed, no matter how busy Jacksonville center seemed with commercial traffic, that the skies were awfully empty. For the entire trip down and back, I only saw a handful of other planes in the air.

Cedar Key was thankfully easy to find - it's on the biggest island of a bunch jutting out into the gulf of Mexico. Cedar Key airport was not - it's barely 2355 feet of faded light sand-colored asphalt half-hidden by trees on three sides. Of course, the island it's on isn't that big. I knew where it should be, and I set up on downwind well before I actually saw it. When I did see it, it looked very, very small. I also had a problem making my brain go through the normal landing flow - all of downwind, base, and final for runway 23 is over water. I don't like getting that close to the water - at home, hypothermia will kill you quickly if anything goes wrong. So the first pass, with a brain still adjusting, I saw the final straw - a twin on the runway. That's it, I went around. The second time I could see the runway, and with that guiding reference, everything else could be made okay.

We didn't get to spend any time at Cedar Key, because the phone call to the wife of we're here and safe produced a "please be back home in time for dinner." So we looked at the other airplanes parked there, watching out for cactus on the ground that's a disaster for airplane tires and three-year-olds (The niece has been to Cedar Key before). Then it was back - but the helpful tailwind was now and unhelpful headwind, we only climbed to 4500 feet, where it only slowed us by 20 knots.

That is, first we went along the shoreline at 600 feet, and I ogled at seeing palm trees in a native habitat. (They do grow wild! really!) Then we followed a river, and my brother used this as time to show off 21L's snappy roll rate by trying to track the river bends down the center at 110 mph. I'm not a great fan of this - it stretches my comfort boundaries, does not fall under "gentle handling", and the mild G's, akin to a roller coaster, puts acute pressure on the injured neck. My brother flies C130's at 50 feet with night vision goggles - he thinks this is a really fun game in bright daylight and a small plane. I played along, doggedly, a little sloppily, and much more gently.

Then we climbed to 4500 feet, and came home in time for dinner. I've decided that either I'm growing accustomed to hearing Southern English, or that VLD only has one controller who mumbles, because I can understand most everything I'm getting from approach, center, and towers. I'm still not responding quickly because I have to think about it - and this annoys my brother, who wants responses snapped out like lightning strikes. This, too, is a difference between a 200-hour VFR pilot like me, coming back after two years off for physical therapy, and a 2000-hour pilot who does this for a living with the military as much as a difference between our temperaments.

No matter; we made it down and safe, paid for the gas, and made it home in time for dinner.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Goal progress

Out of four weeks for a flight across the country to fulfill all the requirements for my commercial checkride, I have 10 days left.

Tomorrow, weather permitting and nothing ELSE coming up, we'll be heading to 7FL6, Spruce Creek, an airpark just south of Daytona Beach to FINALLY get the AYA checkout for solo flight.

From there, I'm probably going to head for Houston as soon as I can pack my stuff and drop my brother off. If there's weather between me and Houston, I'll see if I can pack cross-countries around Florida in. Hopefully it won't be in the fifties like my last foray down there!

What do I need to do in ten days?

I need 34 hours, 22 of which must be cross-country. (that's ambitious but doable in ten days.)
2 hours of this must be a single night VFR cross-country.
One of the cross-countries must be solo, at least 250 nm from the point of origin, with 3 stops, and be at least 300 nm long. (Thus Houston, unless you want to suggest another destination 300 nm from Valdosta, GA.)
I also need 3 more hours of night on top of the night cross-country, with another 9 landings at fields at night where the tower is still open. (VLD and MCN have towers, but when you take off after dinner from PDK at 11pm, the towers go and close before you get to the fields! So that trip didn't count for landings.)

IFR doesn't mean I Follow Road?

Went flying Saturday, from VLD to PDK (Atlanta-area airport), met with friends from Had a great time putting faces to names, and names to net handles. Flight was very IFR; I was in the clouds from 600 feet after takeoff until coming down over Atlanta. GPS died - low battery - on the way there, but was moderately helpful. Cannot figure out an easy way to get intersections ino the flight plan, making it very annoying to use as an IFR backup. There's probably a way, and I just haven't figured it out yet.

Going into the clouds was disconcerting as always - got the leans, and had to fight between my body saying we were in a hard left climbing turn, and my brain knowing that the instruments reporting we were still climbing straight ahead were correct. It's very hard to ignore your inner ear!

Lateral stability on the AA-1B is an interesting thing; as there's no "both" option, it shifts as we burn fuel from left tank or right tank. Climbing off the ground with both tanks full, the airplane leaned to the right because my brother is bigger and heavier than me. As we burned gas off the right tank, at some point, it started leaning to the left.

Broke out in a layer between clouds, and the top layer became thin high cirrus as we went further north. It was beautiful. I could see where air currents were stronger, as the mostly smooth cloud top started to bunch, then ripple in waves of disturbance headed out to the eastern horizon. As dusk came, the western side of the world was lit in beautiful colors - but starting in the northeast, the peculiar gray of haze anddusk combined to leave the sensation of a completely blank section of the sky - a growing nothing that was eating the world.

PDK and dinner was very fun, and good times were had by all. Net friends are an odd mix - in so many ways I know people, but then had no ideas of their ages, faces, or mannerisms. Conversation was easy, though: we were all pilots or patient and wonderful spouses of pilots, so flying and planes was the topic of the night.

Going back was harder - the weather went down instead of up at Valdosta while we were gone, and it required careful thought and a commitment to staying overnight in a hotel before taking off. Atlanta at night is beautiful - and while I was flying, my brother was having plenty of fun sightseeing the congestion as the world's busiest passenger airport slid under our wings on climbout. We had barely gotten up when we started descending again to Macon for more fuel. We'd topped the tanks at PDK, but in order to run the weather around Valdosta, we wanted to start with full tanks at the last clear point on the way home.

Ever driven with your headlights off? It's easier on an airfield as there are lights to define the edges, but it's a lot more challenging when your taxi light burns out. Ahem. Not that I know personally; a friend told me so.

But anyway, we found the FBO, and got marshalled in - a surprise, since they were supposed to be closed at 10pm. The line guys came over after engine shutdown and directed us to the self-serve across the field, with apologies and promises that it was cheaper gas. They were there, it turns out, because a presidential candidate was going to be flying in later - this also explained all the cop cars around. So we started the engine, taxiied over, and fill up from the other side of the field.

Flying home was better - it strongly reminded me of driving. When I first started to drive, after I'd gotten my pilot's license, I hated driving with a passion. Everything always happened so fast, with people coming out of nowhere and screaming by you with less than two feet's clearance. Only when I got out on the highway and had time to relax behind the wheel did I start to feel safe or calm about it. Well, holding heading and altitude while tracking VOR radials in the sky for hours on end will get me accustomed to not being able to see a [self-censored] thing out the windows.

Landing, though, showed one of the biggest differences between IFR training and actual IFR flight - in training, you have a hood or goggles fashioned to be blinders on, and you're not allowed to look outside until the instructor deems you can. In the clouds, flying that fine-tuned localizer beacon one degree wide to track down to the runway, you do look out the window. And when the black world suddenly imparted a dimly glowing streak about halfway up my windshield and a little right, I didn't have to worry about small course changes, trying to fine-tune that needle on the proper dot - I steered for the runway lights that were glowing a welcome home.

We didn't so much break out of the clouds as go from nothing to fuzzy dime lights to bright lights blurred by mist and rain, but at a point (I wasn't looking at the altimeter, I was looking at the VASI, the glide slope lights directing me in at a safe angle), they became sharp and clear, and I was coming in fine, if a little fast, for landing. Down, down into the dark, trusting that the lights ringing the runway defined the edges and made a surface for me to land on. Then we were down, and taxiin to the ramp. It was 1:30am, and we just might get home before the promised "We'll be home by 2am, or we'll spend the night at a hotel and call you in the morning." to his wife.

Who, as it turned out, was up because the teething baby was sick and cranky. So our quietly slipping in the door was met with a big hug and a kiss for him. :-)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

I hab a code

Little kids are germ reservoirs, and daycares are reserves of greater concentrations of biological warfare than any evil overlord has managed to gather. (Unles he included a daycare in the minion health plan.)

Excuse me, I'm going to go get six more layers and another cup of tea.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

comments fixed

With additional poking and prodding at the structure of this site, anonymous comments are now turned on. I didn't figure out they were off by default - see? I'm Not A Geek! Really!

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.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Comedy of Errors

With a dead plane and a live truck, I headed south to Sebring, Florida for the Light Sport Expo. Well, that was the plan. It got a bit delayed by insomnia, sleeping late, and the the one-year-old niece fell and bumped her head. What I would just shrug off as another patch of skin missing is a very big deal on a child smaller than my torso, especially on her face, so off to urgent care she went. (Lord, I know genetics, environment, and your sense of humor are against me, but may she please grow up to be as good a pilot as my brother and I - without being as clumsy as we are on the ground?)

So finally off to the airport to disconnect the charger, verify I can buy the same type of battery, brand new, from the FBO, and then off to Sebring.

Just to point out, though I've flown pretty far and wide, this is only the third time I've driven somewhere more than two hours away, and it was a four hour each way drive. No, I don't like driving. If I was flying, I would have gotten there when the expo was open on Saturday. As was, I arrived an hour after it had closed for the night, and only barely caught the FBO manager as he was leaving for the night. Completely ignoring the female security guard's statement that storms were coming and I should get a hotel room, I presented him with my plight: "The plane's broken in Georgia, so I borrowed a truck and drove the rest of the way. Is there anywhere I can camp under-wing, without having the wing to camp underneath?"

He checked the motorway next door (did you know there's a 12-hour-long car race in Sebring? Apparently I should have.) However, in the rapidly darkening night (sunsets and twilight are a lot shorter down south, though the amount of sunlight is longer), he couldn't find it - so he put me out at the corner of the airfield, in the grass off the very end of the concrete ramp. Before going home, he told the EAA chapter's vice president that I was there, and security as well. So I had company who came over, curious, as I set up my tent and rain fly. Security showed in the form of a great guy, really friendly, who made sure I knew the storm line coming in was supposed to be bad, and am I sure that I don't want to sleep in the lobby, warm and dry?

The promised thunderstorm came, and was awesome. Sleeping on the airfield, in survival gear you know means you'll be comfy if you need it? Priceless.

The very nice security guard came back after the storm, checking on all three of us campers to make sure nobody's tent got soaked or flattened in the storm. (It was gusting probably around 35 to 40 in there at one point). Mine didn't, but another guy wasn't so lucky. After reassuring him, I was drifting off to sleep when I heard a strange loud clunk as his car drove away.

The next morning I took down my tent, and headed out to the airport cafe. Or, that was the intention. The 3-foot-deep hole where the water undercut the sandy soil at the edge of the concrete pad was neither marked nor visible, as the vegetation in it had grown to match the surface around it. I went straight in at about 3 miles an hour, bent the rim, and popped the tire off the bead. So I headed to the airport cafe, where the guy who drives the fuel truck and another volunteer on a golf cart drove back down to my truck, and started contemplating how to fix it. Then the security guy came back - before I knew it, there was a collective crew of helpful men pulling my truck out, directing me to slowly drive it halfway onto the concrete pad around the invisible hole (now visible where I'd crushed vegetation, and from the indention where the security's vehicle had caught one edge of it the night before).

I would have died from embarrassment had everybody not been so calm and helpful - the security guy freely admitted it had almost gotten him the night before, and while this all went on, somebody fetched another orange cone to mark the ege of the pad by it as unsafe. It probably helped that the day was starting out chilly, for Florida, windy and gusty enough to nix any but the bravest and heaviest of planes from flying, so they weren't pressed for crowd control.

We left the truck at an impasse - a bent rim, and the spare tire locked under the truck - and I went to get breakfast at the airport cafe. Questioning the FBO manager about an ATM, he disappeared into the back, and then handed a key to me. "Just head down the road to the Sheraton. This is to the green Explorer." The Sheraton's ATM was broken, so I went down the road a little further, and topped off the gas tank while hitting a gas station's ATM.

Back to the Expo, I looked at and discussed four airplanes, found the booth and told Shawn the Zulu video was hilarious, and was enjoying a great conversation when a golf car pulled up outside with a tanned man who had blond hair in a ponytail longer than anything I've ever managed, and a handlebar mustache. Excusing myself, I went to see V about a grinder to get the lock off the spare tire. Ultralight aviation in the Carribean and Florida produces - or attracts - some fine examples of interesting characters to rival anything in the Alaskan bush, and V was no exception. Roughly five minutes later I was in a bus, drinking coffee flavored with bushmills and baileys (very, very tasty), and listening to an intense debate about different paints and dopes for wings, anti-corrosion techiniques and products for ultralights based in saltwater, the viability of an electric motor for an ultralight, and tangents on motorcycles, yachts, and how best to hustle tourists, selling rides.

After the other two parties to the debate were on their way, V pulled an assortment of tools out, jacked up the truck, pulled the tire off, and pounded the rim back into shape. Then he refilled the tire, checked it, put it back on my truck, and had me drive over by the bus to check that it was good - before sailing off again with me on the golf cart all around the expo, checking on people, plane, the guy who's made the aforementioned electric-motor ultralight... When he motored off to go throw his clothes in the laundromat in town, I felt like I'd been through more of a whirlwind than the thunderstorm the night before.

I barely had time to see a few more planes as people were packing up and tearing down before the Expo was well and truly over - though I made sure to find each of the wonderful gentlemen who'd been such a help and say thanks again before driving carefully back to Valdosta.

After dark fell, on I-75, it was starting to get really boring and tiring, so I started punching scan on the radio. 100.5, Resurrection Radio, alternated rapidly from Voltaire to industrial, EBM to Sisters of Mercy, glancing past Trance and rebounding off Darkwave and Nerdcore to land back in Industrial. I found that bouncing happily along to the beat really loosens up muscles that get stiff and sore from the fixed position of driving, and now I really, really, really wish there was a good place to go dancing at home, or at least a similar radio station - almost all of the good (and bad, and indifferent) industrial and EBM was new to me. I miss dancing.

Friday, January 18, 2008

I think I Can, I Think I can, I think...not.

The Grumman AA-1B has red trim, red leather interior, and a whole lot of dust on her. The dust, apparently, is to expected - in this land where even the thickest grass barely hides dirt made of white sand and red clay, everything gets as dirty as when the wind starts to pick up the grey glacial silt at home. Sitting in a hangar is no proof against dirt - and where she was parked beneath a beam, a bird unkindly left deposits on her tail feathers. D and I had asked the FBO's line guys to pull her out of the hangar, because she appeared to be stuck behind the Cessna 337. Still, even with sunshine showing all the dirt and minor scuffs in her paint, she looked beautiful - not every girl has to look like the plane on the glossy cover of Sport Pilot.

We had started preflight when she was in the hangar, but we started on it again. D was slow with fatigue, as he'd been up since 5am to fly for the Air Force (he was still in his flight suit, on his way home from work). As for me, I was slow because this was the first time I'd really gotten my hands on a Grumman, and I had just finished reading her operating handbook a few hours before. Befitting an introduction and his A&P rating, it was a more thorough preflight than most. We took the cowling off, and all the parts of the engine were exposed and explained, quirks mentioned, eccentricities noted.

Some of these quirks are from the time period of her manufacture - the airspeed reads in miles per hour instead of knots, and there's portable intercom system rigged up in the back because the designers hadn't expected pilots to be wearing headsets. Some of these are due to age - her plastic tailcone, being over 30 years old, needs to be checked very carefully for integrity lest the checking inflict damage on aged plastic. Some are by design - she's made to be extremely responsive, very light control pressures, and fun - but for those of us not used to an airplane that goes left when you look left, and may start to roll if you look away for a second, that is also referred to as "squirrelly."

After fifteen minutes or so of acquaintance with the airplane, we were in it and getting ready to start. Starting requires the ignition be on left magneto, engine primed, mixture rich, throttle cracked 1/2in open, and pressing the start button... and sometimes a flick from the aux fuel pump. Try one didn't work, and try two didn't either. D took over the priming and the throttle, and try three nearly caught - only to die when I let off the starter. Try four yielded similar frustrating results... and try five died as the battery ran out of charge.

So, off with the cowling - she's old enough to be before manufacturers started putting plugs to jump the aircraft in the side, so one has to start taking things apart to reach the battery. Of the cells in the battery, several were wet at the top from boiling over - and only two were as full as they should be. We went looking for a battery charger smaller than the Ground Power Unit that was roughly the same size as a hot dog stand on a sidewalk. (Overkill is not always better.)

The FBO here that keeps the airplane has left an impression of nice setup, but the employees are a few fries short of a happy meal. The line guy we tracked down told us that the only charger out was for charging the golf cart at night (therefore we can't use it), and the other one was in a locked cabinet. "Uh, the maintenance guy will be back Monday, so y'all can charge your battery then. Sorry, folks." (At this point, it's roughly 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. FBOs are typically busy with weekend flyers, so there's no excuse there.)

At this point, I am starting to feel a bit impatient - after all, Monday D and the CFI are both free, so I want to be flying to the Grumman checkout CFI, not sitting on my ass waiting for weather and schedules to coincide again. So, I unclench my teeth, smile at the boys, and say "Ok, then we'll go buy a battery charger. Where do we get one?" Blank look from the line guy. "I'm here, and I want to fly on Monday. There are some problems money can solve!"
"For everything else there's... Mastercard?"
Off we went in D's truck to ferret out his favorite hardware store. Racks and racks of shelves full of shiny things called to us, but we got out of there with only a trickle charger. As D got it out of the box, I scrounged an extension cord, and started converting it from a hopeless tangle to useful. That done, we agreed on the order of operations: tomorrow he will go with his fiance to create the wedding registry, and I will either unplug the charger or call the FBO to do so. He went off to go catch some sleep, and I settled in for another weekend of being as polite a guest as I can be...

But it occurs to me. Sebring's Light Sport Expo is going on now. I want to go to that - I wanted it to be my first post-checkout cross county. Even by car, it's only 4 and some hours away. With no flying this weekend, I think I'll road trip - it's a good place to get a new battery, too, in case I need one!

Thursday, January 17, 2008


It seems every large airport in the world merges into one endless airport, broken by flights - at some point in the morning, I looked down at Atlanta's tile floor and realized it was the same colors as Anchorage's. On the other hand, the accents change - it's hard for me to understand gate calls mangled by the PA when they're spoken in Southern.

I met some great people along the way - a nice Canadian girl on her first flight, who was extremely excited under her mom's tolerant eye to question "a real pilot" about what all the lights on the airport meant. And in Atlanta, there was a very nice Air Force man crashed on the bench across from me. I assured him there were two hours to Valdosta boarding - and two hours later, when I was crashed out hard, he woke me up so I made the flight.

Monday was lost to sleeping, and Tuesday has a large chunk in the middle missing to sleep. Wednesday I stayed awake, and got one errand done. Around the large portions of sleep was a lot of kid-wrangling. One niece is a little over a year old (and sick), one is barely 3, and though both are great girls, I'm not that kid-friendly a person. Their mother can clearly walk me into the ground, and has reserves of energy I can only marvel at - the sheer number of times a day she gets up and down off the floor and lifts sixty pounds of kids shows she is clearly the stronger, better, and more patient woman!

Now that I'm functional, all that remains is having weather good enough to go flying, and someone who knows the airplane to go flying with me. Given its owner is TDY most of the country away, this leaves his buddy D, who is on a crazy schedule. Today I'm going to start working on getting a CFI to come to me, so I don't have to arrange for D to have enough time off to fly down with me.

One week nearly down, three to go. Will get in the air soon!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Late Breakfast

The sun was shining blue sky above the trees from my window, but the weather afield was a bit different - overcast at a thousand, chance of fog in Kenai to the south (clear above that layer) and visibility down to the ground, freezing fog swallowed Palmer and Wasilla to the north. So I called J - a man similarly feeling the itch to fly, for he'd found one thing or another come up for months. His wife answered, amused, and told me he was out checking the progress of the plane's preheat - he'd been been up and at it, off and on, since five in the morning.

When I came over, we quickly decided to leave his patient wife the van, and he moved about the garage with a purpose, gathering things to take on the trip. Down coats close kin to sleeping bags went in the car, and the survival gear already in the plane, but ah! headsets! So inside went went as he unearthed the bag and searched through it in the warmth of the house. I had brought my own, and we compared our cousin models of the David Clark lineage under his wife's tolerant eye. He'd misplaced his hearing aid, but puttered along fine without it (that is what the headset's volume knob is for, after all), and with everything gathered, off we went.

N78RR stood shining in the winter sun, generator putting along quietly, as we pulled up. "Already got the wing covers and tail covers off her." J announced, pleased - all that had held him earthbound long enough for me to come, it seemed, was the stubborn tendency of cold oil and cold engine to stay cold, thermal mass in single-digit temperature air taking a long time to heat for gentle engine starting. When everything was in the plane, though still tied down, he grabbed the propeller and turned the engine around with powerful shoves. I watched, noting the careful placement of his body - the man knows how to handprop, and I don't. But even with the cylinders turned so warm oil would lubricate the cold metal, the engine wouldn't turn over on the first, or third try. A careful shutdown, a few more hand cranks, and the next time round was a charm. Untied, he pulled the plane out of the parking spot, and I ran back to my car to ease it out of the way and into the tiedown. Then I ducked against the cold prop blast, and ran for the passenger door. I couldn't open it against the prop blast until he leaned over and popped it open from the inside, and my hands felt faintly numb as I secured the door and drew my seat up to proper distance for my legs.

We taxiied toward the runway as I opened the supplemental and checked the instructions for heading south - it's been well over a year since I last departed the ground from Merrill's runways, and the careful instructions full of local landmarks and altitudes to be under and over by such needed reviewing. It was here that I realized most acutely our differences - as a member of the geeks who inherited the earth, I'm easily adapted to acronyms and titles. We were listening to the ATIS information version Charlie, then taking the Campbell Creek Departure south. (There are a multitude of departures and arrivals, each carefully crafted in regulations.) But to the owner of the plane, a man who'd been born in the Great Depression, we were as he told ground control "headed south with weather Charlie."

ATC tried to get him to fit to narrower conventions. "Are you taking the Campbell Creek departure?"
"Yep. Headed south."
So much for acronyms.

He had me get the checklist - no shortcuts where it matters - and we ran through the well-handled page with its peeling lamination. And away we went, into the bright blue yonder. His handling of the plane was smooth and sure, gentle and controlled as if he wore it. I shadowed him on yoke and rudders, a little awkward at being in the copilot seat, a little awkward at being in a complex plane with its manifold pressure and prop control, with the extra gauges that monitors, and a little awkward at being back to toe brakes after the supercub with its heel brakes. But south we went, climbing on the proper path and course, climbing where we should, until we were over the Turnagain arm with is discs of frozen seawater clumping the channel like a forgotten petri dish. Along the way, the heater finally started living up to its name, and the speckled frost on the windshield melted away.

Above us, the brilliant blue sky, marked with faint scattered checks of high-altitude cirrus, shone brightly. Below us, the land was a patchy spread of grey-black barren forest threaded and splotched with wide white courses of rivers and lakes. To our left, until we turned and put them at our tail, the maintain rose above the darker forest clawing at their sides and crested in brilliant white snow, lined with dark rock where winds had blown the cover free. Far ahead, we could see the oil platforms in the ocean, squat structures mere dark blocky shapes against the icy waters by day. (By night, they blaze with light, like a string of stars in blue and orange captured from the heavens and strung down the middle of the channel) But in the middle distance lay a long, soft white cover like a woman's dropped shawl, wispy at the edges and puddled into opaque wite, near-flat. We eved the overcast. From above, shining white and serene, it may as well have been mist, creeping among the trees - but this mist hung at a 1200 to a thousand feet above the ground, and we descended to head under it for Kenai.

Never hug the base of a cloud - the air is hazy there, visibility limited. Still, ducking under leaves you in misty grey, the horizon hazed by merging of snow and cloud in sight lines, the world painted cold and dim by blocking the sun. It tempts you to hug the cloud, for you feel too close to the trees below, going too fast. We had neglected to bring the GPS (a shame; I'd have liked to see the 296 in action), so we unfolded the charts, dialed in the Kenai VOR, centered the needle, and headed for it. Nobody else seemed to be flying by the silence on the airwaves, and we both committed verbally to turning around if the weather dropped below feeling safe.

On and on in that dim grey light, wondering just how far to the VOR, scanning every patch of white ahead for the witch's hat shaped building. And then, J relaxed - he pointed at a long streak of white ahead. "There's Kenai."
I frowned, looking at it. He'd let me have the controls, to feel the airplane, but I couldn't resolve the patches of grey and dark grey into anything recognizable. "I don't see it."
"Look. There's the river, coming up..." And he drew the shapes before us into landmarks he knew, until I spotted a black arch against the white, and knew the bridge between Soldotna and Kenai. He called tower at 8 miles out, too the controls, and descended into a long, easy 45 degree entry into downwind. Once close, the long white strip resolved itself into a snow-covered airfield, with a snow-covered runway. "Braking action fair" the weather advised, and I was amazed to see how fast the plane came down, and how smoothly. The Cessna 182 is a monsterous version of a 172, and J advised me it was wise to carry power, have some throttle in, as you land her. She sinks like stone in a rapid-running river with flaps in.

Parking in transient was easy, and we took advantage of the lack of even light wind by not digging out tiedowns to attach to the frozen ground. Instead, out through a gate in the fence, and to the cafe in the main terminal. A sign admonished us on the way out to register and to close our flight plan. We'd filed no flight plan - though J's wife knew very well where we were going, and when we ought to be back - but I queried him on the seemingly mandatory registration. "Ah, I do it sometimes, just to see who else has been in and out of here." He replied.

On the way to the terminal, a man came out a side door. He too wore his grey and white hair proudly under his ball cap, uncaring of the temperatures. "hey, is that door open?" J called.
The man grinned. "No!" A pause. "It's shut now, but it will be when you get there!"
"Great!" J called back, in the affectionate enthusiasm of old men yanking each others chains everywhere. "Just what I need to start my day, a smartass!" They grinned at each other, and we went inside.

The food was good, the conversation very interesting. Over chicken fried steak for him and biscuits and gravy for me (and hot chocolate for us both), we talked of his learning to fly, planes he'd owned, my upcoming trip, and planes we'd flown. Like many pilot conversations, it was periodically interrupted by our heads swivelling to watch planes taking off and landing. Stuffed and warm, it was time to hit the bathroom before flying.

A man who seemed comparatively young to my gracious host, maybe only fourty-odd, was shilling for signatures in the terminal near the cafe, for the clean water initiative. (Basically an attempt to outlaw any commercial mining in southwestern Alaska, in the name of keeping the water sacredly pure for fish.) He was locally dressed, in well-worn carharrts and scuffed boots, and polite with everyone passing by. Another man headed to the water fountain, dressed near-identically, gave him an appraising scowl after politely declining to sign. "Are you an Alaskan?"
"Yes, sir, I am."
"How long have you lived here?"
"Nearly forty-two years."
The hostility evaporated, and the passing man nodded. "Well, I understand your aims, but it's the wrong way to go about things. I can't say I agree." They fell to quiet discussion, neither likely to be moved to the other's point of view, but both willing to test their arguments and defenses against the opposition.

J and I headed back out to the plane, and he motioned me around to the pilot's side afte we took the engine cover off and put it away. The controls are interchangeable, but the tradition is ironclad, and all the gauges are aimed at the person on the left. I ran through the checklist, a little shaky with nervous energy, and we gave the engine a hot start. It took a lot more power to taxi than I'm used to, but it wasn't long before we were holding short, requesting takeoff from the tower, and climbing out.
We went north this time, staying where cloud base was higher, aiming toward the golden band of sunlight off the mountains that shone between grey cloud base and grey snow. North past the VOR, north near to the coast, then following the cost and the single road along it until we ran out of road. J found his backup GPS, and started it as we ran along, pacing past Fire Island and the approach into Anchorage International on the other side of the Turnagain Arm. The cloud cover ended abruptly, and we were back in the brilliant sunshine. I took the opportunity to try some gentle maneuvers, then bolder ones. My shoulder still isn't back to anywhere near normal strength (I fear it never may be again), and I could not haul the nose back far enough, with the engine roaring merrily, to make a power-on stall. J noted lightly that he really wasn't out to stall the airplane anyway, blithely moving past my body failing to pull once-easy maneuvers with the same disregard shown for official names for departures. It wasn't a big deal; why worry about it?

Across the inlet, down into the regulation territory - I was pretty far behind the plane, struggling gamely to catch up, though at least the land below was intimately familiar. Low on final, and adding plenty of power to carry through to the runway - really, adding power, discovering that alone wouldn't make it climb, and adding more. Over the end of the runway now, and easing back the power, waiting, letting the airplane settle. Caution came to me - the nosewheel has the same big tire as the mains, making it easy to taxi and unlikely to get stuck on soft sand or snow, but also prone to tail strike as a higher nose meant a lower tail. So I put aside worries and embarrassment, and concentrated on the feel, power out, of the airplane. wai...wait...raise a little...wait...raise, raise, gently now... in near-calm wind, the mains touched just as the stall horn came on, and the nose lay gently down soon after. Not quite on centerline, but not bad.

We taxied to gas, which like breakfast, he refused to let me pay, and he taxied to parking, to tie down and cover. It was nearly five, with 1.8 on the tach, and the sun was blazing its dying glory on the western sky, as it'd taken almost all the daylight to fly to breakfast and back. We'd be home for the wing covers drying in the garage and putting them back on by the glow of the streetlights and headlights of his van. Worth every bit of cold, every second of cloudy grey skies, easily the best breakfast in months.

Friday, January 4, 2008

A few answers

Why four weeks flying in the lower 48?

Why not? I asked for time off to fly, and I got it - now I'll be warm and flying! I like adventures, and did I mention it's warm and sunny down there?

Why aren't you answering your phone?

My wonderful Alaskan cell provider charges in blood for roaming calls in the lower 48. I'm going to get a pre-paid cell once down there, and those as need it for emergency contact will get it. (Read: Parents, house-sitter, and landlord. If you're not able to tell me my pipes are frozen or there's a family emergency, you can contact me via email.)

How often will you be in touch?

Anyone who knows a pilot knows how much we obsess about the weather. A wonderful friend is loaning a laptop with wireless to check the weather and email. Expect updates about as often as I have spare time, internet access, and inclination to write.

Where are you going to be on X day at Y time?

I'm starting in Georgia, going to Florida, and from there to California and back, weather permitting. Where I'll be along the way at any given time
depends on weather, the price of gas, the current status of my previously injured body parts, availability of interesting diversions, demands of plane, demands of family, and whim. Mostly weather.

Why aren't you leaving exacting detailed plans that include large amounts of personal information, including the names and contact information, social security numbers and places of birth of not only yourself but the people you may be staying with?

I like privacy. I also like the freedom to change my plans. Besides, I'll be in touch.

Why aren't you posting all of this at any of your regular haunts, so we don't have to come to this new place to see what you're up to?

Hi Mom!

Any other questions?