Friday, May 29, 2009

Life at 135 miles an hour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Stone and Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Wait, I'm a member of what now?

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

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

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

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

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

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