Monday, April 27, 2009

When History Takes Wing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 24, 2009

Flying in Texas

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ambushed in the Airport Parking

After twelve hours of travel (one missed connection and being on standby for two flights), I arrived in Houston, Texas. Even as we were on final, I knew I was in trouble - we were at altitude and I was sweating slightly. (I'd just left a comfortably warm day of 44 degrees at home.) As I walked up the jetway, I had a brief impression of trying to breath a warm soup of jet exhaust before getting into the climate-controlled terminal. Upon meeting and greeting Peter, I walked with him all unsuspecting into the ambush in the parking garage.

Barely had I taken ten steps, shuffling a little awkwardly with my carry-on luggage that seemed to be growing heavier and heavier every time I picked it up, when WHAM!

I got clobbered with a full body slam that drove the breath out of my lungs. At first I thought I had merely been tag-teamed by two southern muggers, Mr. Heat and his drinking buddy Mr. Humidity, but as I simply struggled to breathe through their blows while Peter hurriedly dragged me to the safety of an air-conditioned truck, I realized that the other guy on the three-day bender at the bar, Mr. Smog, had joined in.

Much gasping and wheezing and a small exhausted nap later, I woke up and found myself on the road between Houston and San Antonio. We were pulling into a stop for some gas, and the sky was blue and filed with puffy clouds, the wind was a good steady fifteen knots with gusts, the air was comfortably, pleasantly warm, full of bright sunshine, the earth was lush and verdant with green growing things, and the cutest tiny little black birds that look like raven chicks almost too young to fly, but have this big showy black tail almost bigger than their body were filling the air with melodious chirping. (What are they?)

So I'm going to give Texas a second chance before fleeing in horror... but Houston might just have used up any chance for me to ever want to set foot there again.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

a little more on subarctic and arctic flying

As always, it's far wiser to walk a strip before you decide to land there. Just because a plane or track from a plane are already there doesn't mean: 1.) it didn't crash there and get helicoptered out. 2.) your plane has the same capabilities as that plane. 3.) the soil conditions and / or the weather that allowed that landing and takeoff are still present.

Clumps and dense tufts of grass on dry gravel often surround a sizeable rock, as the grass is thriving on the moisture under the rock. On tidal gravel, on the other hand, the grass will surround a hole where drainage provides proper conditions for grass.

If you see a bright green meadow in an unfamiliar area, do not land in the meadow to check it out. Usually said "meadow" is a nice patch of muskeg, too watery for trees to survive, and so soft that landing will flip your airplane on its back. Getting the plane helicoptered out is expensive.

Things to think about: if you flip your airplane on its back, the ELT is broadcasting into the dirt. No matter how powerful, no one's gonna hear it. Same if you sink your plane; water is very effective at shielding and cutting off all emissions. This is why it may be wise to think about getting a portable ELT.

When planning your takeoff, do not assume you can fly low and slow over a cut bank or steep lake shore - if you're still in ground effect and have not achieved flying speed, you're going to settle down into the ground / water right after losing your ground effect lift.

You do need to worry about distant weather. Rain upriver makes the water level rise, and shortens the length of your gravel bar runway / campsite while also softening and loosening the gravel surface.

During summer, dense fog frequently lies very low over the arctic coast. Around midnight, when the sun dips below the overcast and is just above the horizon on the sea, the sunlight gets in under the fog and can heat the ground enough to lift the fog and allow VFR flight.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Spring Beach Landings

Welcome to breakup! It's in the high 30's, a new tide book is published, and the world is turning to ice and mud - in a month, maybe less, green things will start to grow! But as the seasons turn, so familiar landing places become unfamiliar again.

In the spring where mud flats are exposed at low tide, ice cakes moving with the current will drag in the mud. The depth of the grooves left depends on the size of the ice cake, consistency of mud, etc. Strong currents will not only erase these grooves, but also carry away the finest particles that make soft mud, while weak currents leave evidence of grooves and the softest mud. Ergo, if you see ice grooves in the mud after the ice has been gone a while, don't land.

As the spring goes on, ice chunks buried in the sand and gravel on a sea beach will be melting, making for some spots so soft they'll trip an airplane. Fly very low along any intended beach and look for the tell of slight depressions in the sand.

Convex curved sea beaches are usually steeper and more uneven than concave ones - this is important, pay attention. Centrifugal force pulls the airplane toward the water and the roughness reduced the wheel's hold on the beach. Also, in a 3-point attitude, like when you finally get her planted on, the weight of the tail drags it downhill, turning the plane uphill toward the driftwood trees tossed at the high-tide line. If tide, weather, daylight, etc permit, early afternoon landings and takeoffs may be safer as the inland sea breeze will help counteract all of this.

When the tide comes in, it comes up through the mud flat and the sandbar, as well as in from the ocean. Your landing strip will not only get smaller, it will get softer and soupier before the visible tide reaches it. Always leave yourself a margin for deteriorating conditions, and take off before the water comes close to your tires.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


The paradox has always been amusing to me that conservatives are people who are trying to defend one of the most liberal documents in the world.

Now, while I wholeheartedly support the Tea Party movement, and state very firmly that I am loyal to the ideas that created my government and not to the men and women who have managed to grab and hold power within my government, I'm not too upset about the current lack of Tea Party for my town. (Find your own here.)

We just had our local election - and of eight proposed bonds, only two passed. We approved a fire service area expansion - so fewer people will have to watch their houses burn to the ground when a neighbor's catches fire - and road maintenance. Solid, tangible, good things worth supporting.

Our ninth proposition was the icing on the cake - a very severe, firm amendment capping the property taxes allowed in this city. You could call it a slap on the wrist - delivered with a one-inch steel pipe by a very upset man. As for our new mayor - we cleared the field from 19 to 2, and the man far in the lead is a very soundly fiscal conservative. After we finish cleaning house and cutting taxes, then time to take on the state legislature, and the country.

...Edited to add: Huh. Write the post a few days ago, finally post it, go back to double-check details, find a web site for coordinating the Alaska Tea Parties. I love the internet.