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?